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Back to School

September 9, 2010

Back to School

To our students, dedicated teachers, wonderful staffs and volunteers—welcome back to school!

To our pastors, principals, parents, parishioners and generous patrons, thank you for your passion for Catholic schools!

More than ever am I convinced of the irreplaceable value of our Catholic schools. From a purely academic point of view, they educate far better than our government schools, with test scores higher and graduation rates near 100 percent. That's why they're particularly prized in our urban areas, where they offer the best opportunity for our kids—Catholic or not—to receive a first-rate education.

Then there's that intangible element we might call "environment": an atmosphere of faith, prayer, discipline, respect, order, virtue, with the presence of Jesus—the One called "Teacher," "Rabbi," and "Master" by His students, His disciples—everywhere.

These first two values of our Catholic schools—academics and atmosphere—produce tremendous benefits for our community. Social scientists tell us that alumni of Catholic schools overwhelmingly go on to college, land better jobs, enter enduring marriages with united families, and take leadership roles in society. Not bad...it seems that if you want to reduce unemployment, poverty, broken families, violence, drugs and crime, you support Catholic schools!

And then there's the benefit to the Church: studies by CARA, Pew Center, NORC, Notre Dame and NCEA show that alumni of Catholic grade schools, high schools and colleges pray better and more often; know, accept and practice the teachings of the faith better; are more committed to pro-life and social justice causes; are more likely to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life; support the Church more generously; volunteer more often; are more faithful to Sunday Mass; and have happier marriages. Not bad...

Now, believe me, I know our schools are far from perfect, and we cannot loaf. We have problems galore, most of them addressed by the new strategic plan for our schools, Pathways to Excellence: towering cost, declining enrollments, recruitment and retention of top-notch principals and teachers, curriculum and facilities improvement, better marketing, new governance structure...the list goes on. Catholic schools require grit, sweat, tears, hard work and sacrifice, and can cause heartburn and headaches.

But, bottom line: they are well worth it.

Funny enough, the wider community needs no convincing of the soaring value of Catholic schools. We have an impressive array of business, civic, political and philanthropic leaders, Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Jewish, agnostic and even some atheists who are passionately committed to our schools. Even The New York Times compliments them!

But, I fear a loss of nerve within our Catholic community!

Within the Church I see hand-wringing about the cost, the loss of Catholic identity, the fact that the students and parents don't show up at Sunday Mass, and the charge that our commitment to our schools lessens our zeal for other urgent pastoral causes, especially religious education of our children and youth not in our schools (which I will address in my next column).

Yet, the same studies cited above show that it is not an "either-or," but a "both-and," since strong Catholic schools bolster all other Church initiatives, while their disappearance diminishes overall Catholic vitality.

I fear as well an attitude that the support of our Catholic schools is only the duty of the parents who have children there. In this view, a parish without a school has no obligation at all to support other Catholic schools, and a parish blessed with a school might offer a "subsidy" to the school, but shifts the major burden of upkeep to the "school families," who then are looked upon as "demanding drains" on the rest of the parish.

Such a view, of course, is, simply put, "non-Catholic." As our tradition, Church teaching, canon law and cherished Catholic practice remind us, support of Catholic schools is a duty of the entire Church, even if you may not have a child now in one, or belong to a parish without one.

Finally, I fear a subtle buy-in into what I call the hospice mentality. Some bishops, priests, pastoral leaders, and Catholic faithful now sigh and say, "Well, we sure love our schools, and they have served us well, but, sadly, their day is over, and twilight is here. So, the best we can do is make their passing comfortable, and hold their hand while they slowly pass into grateful memory."

Malarkey! We need to move from hospice to hope.

And we can't do business as usual. To stand back and watch our schools struggle and scrape will only result in an "academic Darwinism"—where only the few fit survive—and a slow shrinking and gradual disappearance.

So, what do we do? We do what those before us have done. We renew passion, face reality and boldly plan for the future. We recover our dare and quit whining.

Pathways to Excellence calls for ongoing improvement internally, with realistic attention to quality teachers and principals, improvement of math and science scores, reassertion of Catholic identity and aggressive marketing.

And it offers solid hope for future financial support.

For one, yes, some of our schools will have to merge or even close. I wish there were a way around it. If the vine is to grow it must be pruned. This process requires wide consultation, constant communication and careful collaboration. If we do not consolidate or close some of our schools, all will suffer. If we prudently merge some, all will be helped. New ones can open; others can be expanded.

Two, while the classic model of a parish school should still remain the norm, we must admit that the days of expecting a parish by itself to support its school are coming to an end. So, all parishes help, and the archdiocese continues its effective financial support—made so strong by Cardinal Egan—for our schools. Parishes selling or leasing former convents or schools have an obligation in justice to see that this income is used as the original donors intended: to support Catholic schools.

And new models of governance, such as regional schools, where two or three neighboring schools, all struggling, come together into one strong center, collaboratively governed by a board of the parishes' pastors and faithful, must be encouraged.

None of this is new. Our Catholic schools have had to scrape and fight from the very beginning, since, sadly and unjustly, the high taxes our parents pay for education cannot follow their children to the school of their choice, even if that school educates twice as well at half the price. One of the big reasons we are so strong is because our schools have never been on easy street, and have had to show amazing grit and determination.

So, although I've enumerated some fears, I'm not afraid. We've been through this before. We reclaim our communal obligation to support our schools, even when our own parish might not have one, or when our family might not have children now in them. We move from hospice to hope, putting an end to that subtle temptation to assume our schools are slowly dying, that it's just a matter of time. We stop the turf battles, charging unfairly that support of our schools chokes other pastoral programs, or, the opposite, expecting all parish income only to go to the school. And we get real, admitting that we have some rough decisions about consolidating and even closing, thus making the rest even stronger.

Just remember: it's all worth it!

Welcome back to school!