Home / News & Events / Blogs & Columns / Cardinal Dolan's Column

Making Catholic Schools Even Better

June 30, 2011

Making Catholic Schools Even Better 
 
The conclusion of the school year is a good time once again to thank God for the priceless gift of our Catholic schools.

To our parishes, priests, parents, principals, teachers, staffs, volunteers, and benefactors— thank you for your devotion in making our schools the treasures they are!

Thirty of our schools closed last week, not only for the summer months, but, sadly, forever. While, thank God, all of those children had the chance to attend a new Catholic school close by—and reports are that over two-thirds of them have happily chosen to do so—it is still somber when any school is unable to reopen.

The disappointment over the closing of any Catholic school urges us to recommit ourselves to guaranteeing that a first-class Catholic education is affordable and available to every one of our children. Where a child receives a Catholic education can be flexible; if one is accessible for parents who want one for their kids is not.

So, we continue on our Pathways to Excellence, a promising, creative plan to strengthen, solidify and expand our prized schools.

Some foundational assumptions guide this strategic initiative:

For one, Catholic schools work! They not only work, they excel! Are they perfect? No—never seen any school anywhere that is. Are they expensive and tons of work? Yes—never seen any first-class school that was not. Do they only educate about 28 percent of our children? Yes—but that’s hardly their fault. They’d welcome all.

But, the verdict came back quite a while ago: for all their challenges, Catholic schools are the best thing we got going.

From an academic perspective, children in Catholic schools score better and go on to college at an amazingly high rate.

From a character point of view, Catholic schools impart discipline and virtue in a climate of safety, trust, shared values and love.

From a spiritual vantage point, Catholic schools teach religion, prayer, reverence for God’s creation and His creatures, and a love for the Church. No surprise that studies show that alumni of our schools attend Sunday Mass regularly at a higher rate than others, participate more in Church life, pray more often, know the faith better, consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life more frequently, give more generously to the Church, volunteer more often, enter into stronger marriages than those without the advantage of a Catholic education and bring faith-based convictions more effectively to the public square.

Simply put, Catholic schools work. You bet they can and must work even better; yes, I admit they’re not the only answer—but they’re the best thing we got going in passing on the faith and serving our people, and we can’t just sit here and watch them all slowly die.

Two, support of our excellent schools is a duty of every Catholic! To guarantee that a quality Catholic school is accessible and affordable to every child is a responsibility of every serious Catholic and every parish. To claim that “I don’t have to support Catholic schools because my kids/grandkids aren’t in them,” or “...because my parish doesn’t have one,” is like saying, “I’m not helping those poor people in Haiti because I don’t have any family members/parishioners down there who lost everything in the earthquake.”

Church law, archdiocesan expectations and, one could argue, the moral law are all clear: the duty to support Catholic schools belongs to us all.

As you’ve heard me say before: “It’s time we obeyed the mandate of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, which taught, in 1884 (!), that every parish must provide a Catholic school!” I’m not saying that every parish must have a school on its premises, but that every parish supports one and helps its kids attend that school.

Our third foundational principle: as much as I hate to admit it, the parish-based model of Catholic schools—the school administered and supported totally by the pastor and people of that single parish—can no longer be our exclusive model.

The parochial school has been the paradigm, and it has been the bedrock of our system of Catholic schools.

I hope that the parochial school can continue as a model; it can no longer be the only one.

Simply put, exceptional is the parish today that can finance and administer a school all alone. Some can, and may God keep them strong. But the others cannot just be left to die.

So, point four, what do we do? Seems to be three options:

Door #1: Let’s just keep doing business as usual! We’ll just keep struggling along, hoping we win the lottery. I guess every year we’ll see another dozen or so schools fall by the wayside; in a generation I guess most of our schools will be gone. But, at least we can put off painful decisions, and maybe, just maybe, my school can make it.

This is what I call the hospice model: those who follow this model believe our beloved schools have had a happy, radiant life. All we can do now is keep them comfortable and put off their death as long as possible. Maybe a group of successful schools—usually those in affluent areas, or in the inner city where our extraordinary benefactors have come through—will survive, but most will have to close. (By the way, that’s what I call educational Darwinism: only the strong survive.)

You want to go that route? Good. Neither do I.

Door #2: Get real and close all Catholic schools now! What’s the use of prolonging their death! They’re not worth it anyway! We can use the millions better elsewhere! Close them all! It will cause hurt and controversy for a while, but then the headache will be gone.

Some folks out there want to go through that door. Do you? Good. Neither do I. I’m deadbolting that one.

Door #3: A promising, creative, daring plan that allows parish schools to remain independent (while they still help support the others), but which brings together the majority of our schools into collaborative endeavors in region-based schools.

It’s pure logic: We know that in most regions of our vast archdiocese, two or three excellent schools struggle daily to keep going. Every one of them has room available. Why not bring them all into one, in the best facility, with the best teachers, the most accessible location, run by a board of parents, people and pastors, solidly Catholic, enjoying support and ownership from every parish in the region (even those parishes that up-till-then did not have their “own” school) with a regional office of experts from the archdiocese to assist in administration, marketing, governance and principal/teacher recruitment, formation and retention?

This approach should even save parishes and the archdiocese some resources, allowing us to strengthen religious education, youth ministry, and our works of charity.

A committee has already begun meeting to iron out details.

Makes a lot of sense. And I haven’t seen anything better come along.

Is this plan perfect? Far from it!

Will some of our schools still have to close? Probably. But only to reopen nearby as an even more vibrant school.

Will our schools still demand “blood, sweat, tears”...and a lot of money?

Yep...but they’re well worth it.

This plan is already a year-and-a-half in the making. It is the result of intensive national and local consultation. Our pastors have raised significant questions, and now almost all see the wisdom. Now it will be rolled out to our parents, people, principals and teachers, to refine it and purify it even more. And our goal is to start slowly, with a few brave “pilot parishes” in the Fall, 2012.

If you can come up with something better, or know of another door besides the three I have mentioned, please let me know right away.

Door #1 and door #2 lead to fire escapes and dead ends. Door #3 leads into a new vision of strong, accessible, affordable Catholic schools, owned by every parish, supported by every Catholic, available to every child.

Keep in mind that our Pathways to Excellence is not just about all this finance and governance. It’s also about marketing our schools better, strengthening Catholic identity, better fund-raising, even stronger academics, and vigorous recruitment and retention of the best principals and faculty.

Almost 170 years ago one of my predecessors, Archbishop John Hughes, made a decision: our children can all go to the then-called “common schools” —where religion could not be taught, prayers were not allowed and our own Church was often mocked—or we can begin and support our own. He and his people chose the second door. Thank God!

Every one of his successors, up through Cardinal Egan, have worked tirelessly to keep that miracle going, supported at the cost of heroic sacrifice by their people, and by selfless sisters, brothers, and lay teachers. Our schools became and are the envy of the world.

I’m not about to let a future archbishop say that this noble project, this miracle, ended when it was our turn to keep it strong.