Inner-City Catholic Education Rises to COVID Challenge

Modern technology aids learning during the pandemic.

Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, shown speaking to young students, says the archdiocesan schools had a smooth transition to at-home learning. Below, Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Birmingham, Alabama, was also uniquely poised for distance learning.
Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, shown speaking to young students, says the archdiocesan schools had a smooth transition to at-home learning. Below, Holy Family Cristo Rey High School in Birmingham, Alabama, was also uniquely poised for distance learning. (photo: Courtesy of Kevin Kijewski and Father Jon Chalmers)

With more than 50 million children in the country home from school during the pandemic, there have been some sharp contrasts between the Catholic and public schools, particularly with inner-city schools. For instance, in the Archdiocese of Detroit, distance learning at its parochial schools began without missing a beat, while the public schools in the Detroit area ended the school year, too overwhelmed by the logistics necessary to keep going. On the other end of the spectrum, a few Catholic schools already struggling financially will have to close their doors permanently at the end of this school year. Through it all, the unifying force in both heartache and success has been daily prayer, to trust and be strong through this difficult time.

Kevin Kijewski, J.D., superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, explained in an interview with the Register that the archdiocese encompasses six counties with 64 elementary and 23 high schools serving 27,000 students. A few in rural areas have just around 100 students, and the two largest in suburban neighborhoods have just under 1,000 pupils.   


Detroit Passes Test
When the governor ordered schools in the state closed on March 12, spring break was moved up a week while teachers and administrators worked overtime creating a plan; they were ready to begin distance learning on the first day after break. “The state superintendent of education said distance learning is not going to count as clock hours towards graduation for them,” Kijewski said. “That’s not true for us. I am so glad I work in a Catholic-school system, as there’s so much uncertainty in the public system.”

At the Catholic schools — where tuition averages about $5,500 at the elementary level — the administration has reached out to families, working with them individually wherever there is financial hardship. “We are committed to educate every child through the end of the year,” Kijewski stated.

One of the challenges for the inner-city schools has been internet and computer access. Thanks to a previous program in partnership with Sprint telecommunications corporation and the CARES Act — a government education relief fund — it was possible to provide many computers for students that needed them. In addition, take-home lesson packets are provided in unison with a food program for the needy where breakfast, lunch and dinner can be picked up alongside the lessons. Teachers are connecting with parents by phone, too, to keep them involved.

“It’s about community-building,” Kijewski said. “Our principals are making calls to families, not just about education, but to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ We can’t solve everything, but if needed, we are able to connect them with Catholic Charities and other community resources.” 

Many schools are using the Zoom platform, so students can interact with their teachers and classmates. The principal and pastor are also able to pop in occasionally to just say “Hi” to students.
“Our teachers, students and parents are resilient and are in it for the long haul,” Kijewski said. “We are proud of them, while we are all focused on giving our students the education that Christ wants them to have.”


School Closings

For a few Catholic schools, the coronavirus has meant closing. In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Leslie Barrera, director of media & technology for Catholic schools, explained, “We had to make the heartbreaking decision to close four of our schools permanently. After the closure, there will be 46 elementary schools and 10 high schools.” Despite having worked for years to sustain their inner-city schools, COVID-19 became the last straw for those already struggling with declining enrollment, heavy reliance on financial assistance and deteriorating buildings. The school year will be completed, and students will be helped with a tuition credit if they transition to other Catholic schools.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City also has a school that has become a casualty of COVID-19. St. Mary’s, a 113-year-old institution serving 135 Pre-K through Grade 8 as a part of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, will close on May 29. The pastor, Father Brian Buettner, explained in a statement that there had been a program in place to revitalize the struggling school. “Then, the pandemic struck, sending the situation into a tailspin. We love this school. I love this school. It is heartbreaking to face these practical realities.”

He expressed hope of one day reopening the school. “Until then, Jesus walks beside us and is the light that scatters the darkness of gloom and brings us lasting hope.”


Tax-Credit Scholarships Help in Florida

Catholic schools in the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida include two high schools and seven elementary (also serving students with special needs) and four early-learning centers. A third high school for students with special needs opens in the fall. Superintendent Michael Juhas explained that they have not been hard hit financially, thanks to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships established in 2001 by the state Legislature. Corporations receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship-funding organizations to help low-income children attend private schools. For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, $873,565,674 was awarded.

Their schools also moved spring break up a week, while teachers and administrators prepared for distance learning immediately after the break. “Communication has been key,” Juhas said. He noted that, one of the schools, St. John’s in Panama City, had still not fully recovered from Hurricane Michael a year and a half ago, but schooling has not been interrupted. “Teachers are the rock stars in this,” he said. “They are doing live sessions on Zoom for a set amount of time every day so everyone still feels connected. Parents also now have a window to the classroom. They are seeing firsthand just how good of a job the teachers are doing.”


Cristo Rey School

Father Jon Chalmers,  president of Holy Family Cristo Rey High School (with 185 students), and pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Birmingham, Alabama, explained that the school is part of a nationwide network of 37 inner-city schools, serving 12,000 students in 24 states. The Cristo Rey model combines academics and real-world corporate work experience, providing students from economically challenged families with encouragement to flourish, to help break the generational cycle of poverty.

Their funding model has helped avoid financial problems, at least for the short term, according to Father Chalmers. Tuition comes from a combination of families, charitable giving, fundraising and corporate donations, plus payment for student employment, as the students complete actual work while establishing career-mentoring relationships as part of the curriculum.

When the state mandated schools be shut down due to the pandemic, Holy Family was uniquely poised for distance learning. “Two years ago we created a digital-fluency initiative so every student has a Chromebook,” Father Chalmers said. “We learned on March 14 [Saturday] that schools would close. On Monday, we were ready to go. We had plans in place to do this if schools closed for two or three days — like happens during an ice storm in the Deep South. We just changed the plan from days to weeks.”

Father Chalmers explained that ensuring that everyone has a safe place to live and learn has been a concern, but a bigger issue has been challenges to productivity from distractions in families and neighborhoods. “Another problem is that we lost a lot of nonverbal cues of students, such as slumped shoulders, looking confused. … So we have doubled down on communication with the scholar and the family, trying to capture what is going on.”

A positive, according to Father Chalmers, is that online learning is an increasing part of higher education. “Our students are now getting a crash course in it.” A big negative, however, is needing to cancel the school’s annual “Rey of Hope Gala,” which was anticipated to raise $600,000. The administration is trying to come up with alternative plans.


Teachers and Students

Three Holy Family students shared their experiences with the Register.

Christopher Edwards, a freshman, said he is enjoying more time with his family. “I also have fun communicating with my classmates and teachers through our Zoom meetings,” he said. “Thanks to my school, I haven’t really faced any challenges. I was provided with all the services and help that I needed.”

Senior Aaliyah Hendricks found the transition difficult in many ways, such as not knowing if there would be a prom or how graduation will take place. “As a class, we stuck together and didn’t give up,” Hendricks said. “Taking classes online, as a visual and hands-on learner, was hard, but I succeeded through the challenge.”

According to sophomore Vanessa Olguin Portillo, “The school did a very good job being understanding of the situation and listening, to help our students and community. We progress through this pandemic as a school and as a family with fortitude and hope.” 
Elizabeth O’Hare, a high-school teacher at Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary in East Los Angeles, learned on Friday, March 13, that they would begin online learning. After one in-service day on the following Monday, classes began again on Tuesday, March 17. She admitted that the first week was overwhelming, but by the second week, she was more comfortable and found ways to keep in touch with her 120 students by holding office hours and requiring them to check in by email. 

“This has pushed me to think of creative ways to teach difficult concepts outside of the classroom and try to make them fun,” she said. “Most of all, it has reminded me of how much I love my students and what an impact they have on my life. This time is certainly teaching me how to surrender everything to the Lord, because so many things are out of my control.”

Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.