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The Four R’s of Our Cherished Catholic Schools

November 18, 2010

The Four R’s of Our Cherished Catholic Schools
Realism, Resignation, Respect and Resolve

Last week was a tough one for thirty-one of our splendid Catholic elementary schools in the archdiocese. As you have heard, we had to advise them that, after a year of intense study and consultation, our commission had concluded that the archdiocese could not promise them a grant for next year. Realistically, most of them probably cannot make a go of it on their own.

This was a very sad duty of Dr. Timothy McNiff, the excellent board of parents, pastors, principals, educators, and community leaders he had assembled, and for yours truly. None of us wants to close any school! We would rather open them!

But the sadness was especially deep for the parents, students, teachers, pastors, and parishioners of the schools receiving the bad news. I am very sorry about this bad news and the sadness this brings them.

While not denying the brokenheartedness, disappointment, and even anger among some, I am still very inspired by the resignation, realism, and respect that has been expressed by so many. The overwhelming majority of pastors and principals affected by this somber news, while grieving over the probable decision not to continue next year, has expressed a realism about their situation, a resignation that the news was hardly a surprise, and a respect for the process and the strategic plan, Pathways to Excellence.

Now that the dust has settled a week later, maybe a few observations might be helpful.

When it comes to our beloved schools, we simply cannot do business as usual! Like every other educational system in America, our Catholic schools have towering problems. In some ways, ours are bigger, because our parents cannot use their own tax money to subsidize their children’s education. So, the costs are staggering. In other ways, our problems are less, because our product—an excellent, values-based quality education, in a safe, secure atmosphere of faith and love—is so esteemed, recognized to be much better than government and charter schools. But our problems are such that, if we are not realistic, they will devour us.

Simply put, if we do not close, consolidate, and merge some of them, all will eventually be at risk. To do nothing is actually to do something: accept the decline and eventual demise of our schools. That we will not do.

Thus I hear from more and more parents, pastors, principals, and parishioners: “Archbishop, this Pathways to Excellence is far from perfect, and we’ve got some serious questions and criticisms, but, we’re glad we got a plan, we need one, and there’s a lot more good and promising in the plan than bad and depressing!” Thanks!

It’s not all about money! In deciding on the “at risk” schools, after a year of careful study and consultation, Dr. McNiff’s board came up with six wise criteria to determine which schools should no longer receive a diocesan subsidy. The schools on the list had:

• nearby Catholic schools eager to receive all of the children from the school to close;

• declining enrollment;

• a neighborhood demographic which indicates this decline will continue;

• facilities in need of repair;

• in some cases, shaky test scores;

• a dependence upon a high archdiocesan subsidy over the past years without which the school would not survive.

Money, then, is only one of the six criteria.

The archdiocese will always support our schools. This decision is not made so “the archdiocese can fill its coffers.” The money saved will be reinvested in our schools and other crying pastoral needs: youth ministry, Catholic Charities, pro-life, marriage and family, religious education, our seminary, new parishes—and expanded, stronger schools.

We want to avoid the “blame game.” Yes, some blame those Catholic parents who do not send their children to our excellent schools. (If only 10% more of them did, by the way, our schools would be filled);

Yes, we could blame the politicians who will not allow parental choice in allowing education tax revenue to go to our schools, thus maintaining the disastrous government-school-monopoly;

Yes, others blame the pastors who, they claim, are listless in their promotion of the schools;

And, yes, most popular of all, some blame that nasty, mean, uncaring archdiocese—even though this year alone the archdiocese is investing $21 million in our challenged schools, and even though each of the thirty-one “at risk” schools has received millions in help over recent years.

The “blame game” is useless and counterproductive.

It’s not just the poor, city schools that are on the list. Not at all. Less than half of the affected schools are urban. In some ways, thanks to the heroic generosity of our benefactors, encouraged by Cardinals Cooke, O’Connor, and Egan, our inner-city schools are financially more secure.

Nor is this just one more step in the eventual disappearance of our beloved schools. Just the opposite. As Pathways to Excellence details, our goal is even more students in even stronger schools with more secure financial foundations.

Not to have made these painful decisions would actually hurt our schools more!

Now, what are our next steps?

For one, we must follow through in our assurance that every child in a school to close will be warmly welcomed into a nearby excellent Catholic school. We’re working on that now. We need no panic with scared parents pulling their children out of schools to close and enrolling them now in another one. That cannot happen.

Two, a few of the “at risk” schools might come to the conclusion that they still want to remain open. That’s their choice, of course, and, God bless them. But, our board spent a year looking at every possible way these schools could survive. I’m afraid such a decision would only delay the inevitable. And, we still could not justify an archdiocesan subsidy.

Three, we concentrate on the positive, promising parts of Pathways to Excellence. The sober news of closings cannot overshadow the good news and hopeful strategy. Now to be unleashed on the agenda are the following:

• aggressive marketing;

• intense improvement of test scores in math and science;

• reinforcing vigorous Catholic identity;

• recruitment, training, and retention of first-rate principals and faculty;

• robust regional collaboration;

• higher enrollments, especially among our Latino students;

• development of pre-and after-care programs in our schools;

• looking into longer school days and a more extended school year;

• expanding availability of scholarships.

As I’ve said till I’m blue in the face, we must regain our confidence. Our Catholic schools are the best thing we got going. We’re not about to watch them die.

My trust in God, and in you, is unshakeable.

Thank you for your realism, resignation, respect, and resolve!

A blessed Thanksgiving!