What Is the Future of Parochial Schools?

CATHOLIC SCHOOLS WEEK: Faithful education rides on innovating funding, governance models, parents and educators say.

Top to bottom: Houston’s Holy House Academy provides home-school families with traditional educational support. And St. Francis de Sales School in Newark, Ohio, educates students like Patrick Gassman, whose family participates in EdChoice, Ohio’s voucher system.
Top to bottom: Houston’s Holy House Academy provides home-school families with traditional educational support. And St. Francis de Sales School in Newark, Ohio, educates students like Patrick Gassman, whose family participates in EdChoice, Ohio’s voucher system. (photo: Courtesy of Holy House Academy and Gassman family)

NEWARK, Ohio — Greggory and Mary Gassman love their parish Catholic school and watching the impact St. Francis de Sales School has had on their son Patrick. He has been enthusiastic in trying to get his family to pray the Rosary and loves his “prayer partners” at the Ohio parish school’s Mass.

“Just yesterday, he insisted everyone, even his younger brother and sister, gather together to pray the Rosary,” Greggory told the Register. The Gassmans said the parish school is a “small enough environment to get individualized attention” and nurtures students and families’ faith lives.

“We also got an email from his teacher, where they did the [Epiphany] chalk blessing, and they sent blessed chalk for us to do it at our house,” Mary said.

However, the Gassmans said that they live on a combined income of less than $40,000 a year. Catholic elementary education is only in their reach thanks to EdChoice, Ohio’s voucher-system. And they are not alone.

“There’s a fair proportion of the school that is on EdChoice,” Mary said. Without that possibility, Greggory added, “It would have been public school almost definitely.”

Catholic parish schools are faced with severe challenges to fulfill their mission to make high-quality, authentic Catholic education accessible to families on middle and low incomes.

A sobering analysis of Catholic schools shows that the ability of the middle class to have access to a faithful, top-tier Catholic education is collapsing.

The analysis by Richard Murnane, Thompson Research Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, found that by every measurement, the overall percentage of middle-income families enrolled in Catholic education was worse in 2013 than 1968. While the percentage of black families in Catholic schools had increased across all income-levels, the percentage of low-income and middle-income Hispanic families (the plurality of the Catholic population) in Catholic schools had simply cratered.

However, a number of Catholic parish schools and their dioceses are meeting these challenges and are thriving with innovative solutions that fulfill the Church’s mission to provide Catholic education to the children of these families, regardless of income.


Governance Models

The future of Catholic schools depends on both developing funding sources and internal governance models that will allow them to achieve their mission of providing a faithful Catholic education to all in the 21st century, according to Brittany Vessely, executive director of Catholic Education Partners. CEP is a Denver-based organization dedicated to empowering parents and Catholic education, particularly by advancing “school-choice” public policy.

She told the Register that Catholic parishes have benefited from school-choice government funding in 29 states and Washington, D.C. Most of those recipients, she said, are from families with low incomes or children with special needs, and 40% of them attend Catholic schools.

Vessely said that government school-choice vouchers and private philanthropy (such as ACE Scholarships) are making it possible for families with low incomes to send their children to Catholic school. “It’s actually middle-income families that have been missing out.” Vessely said families with middle incomes that do not qualify for these subsidies are falling into a gap, between diocesan schools that are geared toward families with low incomes and independent Catholic schools that are geared toward families with wealthy incomes.

“Private philanthropy is going to have to step up in that regard,” she said. Her organization is working with ACE Scholarships, which principally exists to help students from low-income households attend private school, to tailor some of that need-based aid specifically toward families with middle incomes in the Denver area.



But some Catholic schools are bridging the funding gap with creativity and by following a biblical prescription: tithing.

St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin is a Catholic parish school in Pennsylvania. But it has provided free tuition to its 370 students by creating a culture of tithing in its sponsoring parish.

A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review profile of the school noted St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin had no endowment and that the parish school’s budget was $1.3 million a year. But the parish has 2,300 registered Catholic families, and so the $3,300 to educate each student can be funded directly from the collection basket, through an average annual contribution of $565 per parish family. Fees for a new elementary student start at $1,512.

The Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, has also developed a tithing-based model to fully fund tuition of Catholic schools based on tithing and private philanthropy and in line with the Church’s social teaching. The vision of the diocesan St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School Fund is to give every child an equal opportunity to attend Catholic school, with “the resources needed to meet their spiritual and academic needs” and be taught “by highly qualified teachers who receive a just salary regardless of the parish location or financial status.”

The Drexel Fund supports 25 diocesan parish schools. It requires parishes with schools to spend at least 50% of Sunday income on Catholic school education and parishes without schools to spend 25%. The fund has provisions detailing thresholds for parish schools to meet to make sure families with low-incomes are attending, to keep costs low, to reduce debt, and strengthen their stewardship and strategic plan to make their Catholic schools competitive.

Catholic parish schools are also facing a vigorous challenge from charter schools, particularly in states where religious schools are not allowed to receive student vouchers. The New York Daily News in 2012 reported the findings of Abe Lackman, a scholar-in-residence at Albany Law School, who found that 180 charter schools had drawn nearly 32,000 students away from Catholic schools in New York state and that charters were responsible for 37% of the decline in numbers at Catholic schools.

One approach Catholic schools facing this direct existential challenge to their mission use is to turn into charter schools themselves, but with a “wrap-around model.” Catholic Education Partners’ Vessely explained the idea is that these schools can take public money for tuition and provide a secular education, but the Catholic faith-formation components, such as Mass or religious-education classes, would be optional and take place before and after official school hours for Catholic students. She said the Archdiocese of New York has taken this approach in order to save a number of its schools from closing. But the solution is not ideal.

“If we’re trying to recatechize our schools and trying to move Catholic education back to being what it is authentically supposed to be about, with Christ at the center of every classroom and throughout the curricula, it’s not the best model,” Vessely said. “But it is the best model if you’re shutting down schools, as an option of last resort.”


Setting Oneself Apart

For other Catholic schools, the challenge for parish schools is providing a faithful Catholic education that is also sufficiently alternative to the public and charter schools and can attract substantial philanthropic investment.

Some parochial schools have found new life by turning to the Catholic Liberal Education (CLE) model for K-12 education, which emphasizes the long-standing tradition of liberal education as developed by the Western Church. Elisabeth Sullivan, executive director of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, told the Register that the approach is “authentic Catholic education because it captures the unity of faith and reason throughout the entire curriculum, in contrast to the secular, industrialized model.”

Sullivan said the approach “works in all kinds of settings — urban and rural, affluent and low income, high-achieving and otherwise” — and has demonstrated results in reviving Catholic schools that otherwise might have died.

She pointed to Holy Innocents School, which serves a predominantly Latino community in Long Beach, California, and has seen students more engaged and test scores rise since it made the transition last year. Approximately 75% of students, she said, are part of the free and reduced-fee lunch program.

Sullivan said enrollment gains can help right the ship. St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, was on the brink of closure when it became a CLE school in 2010.

“Enrollment gains are going a long way to fill the budget gaps and steady the ship, allowing more room for scholarships,” Sullivan said, pointing out that St. Jerome’s was in debt and now operates in the black.

“Furthermore, school leaders report that donors are seeing the tremendous impact and they are stepping up with financial support for training and scholarships,” she said. 

Danny Flynn, principal of St. Jerome Academy, also told the Register that the school has benefited from a state voucher program for qualifying families for the last two years. But they have also raised more private financial aid lately from the generosity of “current families contributing above their own tuition contract and contributing additional funding to go toward families in need.”


Hybrid Models: Holy House

Some Catholic parishes are pursuing hybrid models of Catholic education that help parents home-school their children while providing them some traditional educational support.

One such model is the Holy House Academy at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston, which is the mother church of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

The Pre-K4 to 12th-grade home-school enrichment program meets on Wednesdays (with an additional Monday class available) from September to May, from 9am to 4:30pm. Holy House Academy offers approximately 80 different courses to choose from in art, music, Greek, Latin, science, math, literature, history, nature and philosophy and helps form students in the very heart of the Catholic faith. Students also wear a uniform and attend Mass every day.

“We’re the largest home-schooling program here in Houston,” Catalina Brand, director of Holy House Academy, told the Register.

Brand said that Holy House is different from many typical home-schooling co-ops, where parents skilled in subject areas teach classes. She explained Holy House makes use of university professors, graduate students and retired teachers in the Houston area to teach the academic courses at Holy House Academy, grade assignments and send progress reports to parents.

Brand explained that Holy House Academy provides a sliding-scale fee for parents. A new elementary school child would be $1,512, while a new family of four students would be $2,940, with a discount for returning families.

Holy House is part of the operating budget of the cathedral parish, and the parish’s philanthropic support also allows Holy House to provide a lot of financial aid so cost does not put this program out of reach for their families. Parents also commit to 50 volunteer hours a year to keep costs low.

The present challenge, Brand explained, is that demand exceeds the available space. They have 230 students from 70 families attending Holy House, including more than 50 high-school students. Families also know Holy House’s graduates have a strong reputation with Houston’s universities.

 “What we’ve done,” Brand said, “is we’ve created an environment where kids can be safe, happy and eager to learn.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a

Register staff writer.

This story was updated after posting.