TUCSON, Ariz. — Four years ago, St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Tucson was on the verge of closing.
Enrollment had dropped to fewer than 130 students. The school had its fifth principal in six years, and teachers had taken a pay cut. The lack of stability contributed to financial difficulties and a lack of supplies that forced students to share textbooks. The school’s third-graders’ math scores were at the 17th percentile, about 33 percentage points below the national average.
Fast-forward to 2013, and St. John the Evangelist has increased its enrollment to more than 250 students — a 91% growth — and more students are expected to enroll. Grants have enabled the school to update its classroom libraries and buy more textbooks. In the 2012-13 academic year, the school’s third-graders performed at the 52nd percentile in math, two percentage points above the national average.
The turnaround at St. John the Evangelist happened with the same teachers in place. Changes in the school’s management structures and philosophy, a greater sense of professionalism, a new understanding of its Catholic identity, a collaboration with the University of Notre Dame and a tax scholarship-credit program that helps families afford private education have all contributed to revitalizing a once-struggling Catholic school that serves a predominantly Hispanic community.
"Catholic schools need to reinvent themselves to serve and educate those in the community. If they don’t do that, they’re not being true to their mission," said St. John the Evangelist’s principal, Keiran Roche.
St. John the Evangelist’s story mirrors in many ways the struggles and challenges facing Catholic schools across the country, hundreds of which have closed in recent years due to a number of factors that include falling enrollment, higher tuition costs, the emergence of charter schools, fewer Catholics practicing their faith and the migration of Catholics from cities to the suburbs.
The days are gone when a pastor could sit back and count on parishioners to send their children to the parish school, which in the past was almost always run by a religious community.
"The old model simply doesn’t work," said Christopher Mominey, the new chief operating officer and secretary for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is collaborating with business leaders and the wider Catholic community to revitalize Catholic education.
In mid-July, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia transferred management of 14 parish elementary schools to Independence Mission Schools, a nonprofit that says it uses best business practices to provide a "high-quality, cost-effective education."
Last year, 17 archdiocesan high schools and four special-education schools were put under the management of the Faith in the Future Foundation, an initiative formed by the archdiocese and lay leaders. Officials said the high schools — four of which had been slated for closure — now have their largest freshmen classes in more than a decade.
Mominey told the Register that the archdiocese’s goal is to increase enrollment in the high schools by 6,000 students by 2017.
"We’re really seeing a turnaround in those schools, in going from deficits to an expected surplus," Mominey said. "Our belief is, with the proper business model and proper management, we can grow these schools into places that we can be proud of in the 21st century and enable them to become models for 21-century learning."
A similar story is playing out in the Archdiocese of New York, which has closed 56 schools since 2011 and has since set up a regional school system managed by trustee boards comprised of clergy and laity. The boards are responsible for the operations of Catholic elementary schools in their respective regions and set policies, including tuition rates, as well as taking the lead roles in marketing and fundraising.
Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register that he is "extremely excited" for the 2013-14 academic year.
"The details have come to fruition, tough decisions have been made, and the plan is in place," McNiff said, adding that the archdiocese has largely eliminated a $22-million budget deficit through its reforms, which include instituting a sliding tax on parishes, as well as selling archdiocesan assets. McNiff said the regional trustee boards will also receive $20 million each year to provide scholarships to students.
In late July, the New York Daily News published a feature story about another new archdiocesan initiative, under which the independent nonprofit Partnership for Inner-City Education has contracted to operate six Catholic schools in Harlem and the Bronx.
According to the Daily News, the nonprofit group has committed to allocate $9 million over the next five years to repair school buildings and pay for other necessary supplies, programs and staff training.
"We need to try new administrative models to address the challenges faced by Catholic education today and to ensure that our schools thrive and stay strong for future generations. We can’t afford ‘business as usual,’" Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in a July 24 statement announcing the new initiative. "The Partnership’s model is creative and bold, and I am truly excited about it. We need to follow the exhortation of Jesus to ‘cast out to the deep,’ as we lead Catholic education with a sense of vigor and dare."
McNiff said he expects school enrollment to increase this September.
"We have a lot of reasons to be extremely optimistic," McNiff said. "Parents don’t have to walk on egg shells anymore. The schools are stable."
Catholic educators across the country are rethinking the traditional governance models of Catholic schools. Faced with ballooning deficits and shrinking enrollment, many Catholic school officials are consolidating resources and regionalizing schools, in turn closing smaller parish schools, often heartbreaking developments for generations of older Catholics who attended those schools.
"So many folks are tied to the nostalgic look back at Catholic education," Mominey said.
Those days, however, are long gone. Religious communities no longer run the vast majority of Catholic schools. Those sisters and brothers have been replaced by lay teachers who require higher salaries, in turn driving up the costs of sending children to Catholic schools.
Almost 97% of faculty and staff in Catholic schools across the country today are laypeople, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. That represents a near-complete reversal from almost a century ago, when around 92% of teachers and staff in Catholic schools were priests and religious, according to the NCEA.
"We’ve seen a lot of changes in governing structure. We have more lay boards taking leadership in running the schools and establishing good business practices," said Christian Brother Robert Bimonte, president of the NCEA.
Catholic school enrollment in the United States peaked during the early 1960s, when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 schools across the country. Those numbers began slipping in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1990, there were approximately 2.5 million students in 8,719 Catholic schools in the United States, according to the NCEA.
Even as schools closed, enrollment actually increased by 1.3% from 1990 to 2000, but those numbers began falling again after 2000.
The Major Challenges
Funding and enrollment, Brother Robert acknowledged, are the two major challenges facing Catholic schools, which are becoming more expensive to operate because of salaries, materials, supplies and, in many cases, aging buildings that require more upkeep.
"One of the goals Catholic schools have is to make the education more affordable," Brother Robert said. "As much as we try to keep costs down, unfortunately, some families still can’t afford the cost of a Catholic education."
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.
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