Catholic Schools, Invigorated by ‘the Gift of Time,’ Trying to Make Gains While the Sun Shines

Catholic Schools Expect Another Year of Gains Post-Pandemic

IN THE CLASSROOM. The St. Thomas More ‘teacher boot camp,’ which trains liberal-arts graduates to become Catholic-school teachers, is part of the St. Thomas More Teaching Fellows Initiative in the Boston Archdiocese.
IN THE CLASSROOM. The St. Thomas More ‘teacher boot camp,’ which trains liberal-arts graduates to become Catholic-school teachers, is part of the St. Thomas More Teaching Fellows Initiative in the Boston Archdiocese. (photo: Courtesy photo / George Martell)

BOSTON — Catholic schools that saw an uptick in enrollment when public schools went online during the coronavirus shutdowns are now trying to capitalize on the surge in interest.

The unexpected boon has given formerly struggling Catholic schools “the gift of time,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, who sees his mission as making Catholic schools in the Shining City Upon the Hill more Catholic.

Carroll has traveled extensively to recruit teachers for the archdiocese’s schools, focusing on liberal arts colleges where committed Catholic students might not think of themselves as potential teachers because they haven’t formally studied education.

Carroll raised $300,000 for the program, geared solely for teachers in the Archdiocese of Boston and called the St. Thomas More Teaching Fellows Initiative.

(In Robert Bolt’s 1966 play A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More tries to get Richard Rich to become a teacher, saying he would be “a fine teacher … perhaps even a great one.” When Rich objects by asking who would know of his achievements, More responds: “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”)

About two dozen recruits are taking part in a five-week summer boot camp designed to add teaching skills to their knowledge and faith. Students are staying at Regis College, a Catholic school of higher learning in Weston, Massachusetts, and are attending sessions at nearby Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, which serves older candidates for the priesthood during the school year but is largely empty during the summer.

Among small and midsize Catholic colleges, the new teachers-to-be come from the University of Dallas, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ave Maria University, Magdalen College and Mount St. Mary’s University. Recruits also come from The Catholic University of America, Duke and Princeton, among others. Carroll singled out Thomas Aquinas College, which has campuses in California and Massachusetts, as a potential rich source.

“I’m taking a pretty big bet here that they’re going to be phenomenal teachers,” Carroll said. “They have deep and abiding faith, intellectual curiosity, high work ethic.”

He’s looking for faithful Catholics who know something already and want to learn more and who want to impart to others not just subject matter but also their Catholic faith.

“I think the whole game is talent, talent, talent,” Carroll said. “Like a sports team, it’s what you put on the field that determines whether you win. In our case, the championship we’re trying to win is eternal salvation. I want to make sure we have the right team on the field to attain that goal.”


Post-Pandemic Enrollments

Several diocesan superintendents who spoke with the Register said their enrollments have either continued to increase or at least have not declined since the early-pandemic surges of a couple of years ago.

Formal counts for this school year won’t take place until September or October. But early returns are encouraging.

Enrollment went up about 1% in the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s schools last school year — after losing about 1%-3% a year during the previous 15 years, said Superintendent Pamela Lyons. In the Archdiocese of Denver, enrollment is holding steady, after decreasing about 3%-4% a year during the past couple of decades.

The Archdiocese of New York saw an increase of about 2,500 students this past school year. The Archdiocese of Boston, which avoided closing a large number of schools a little over a year ago because students flocked to them after public schools went online, also saw gains last school year. The previous year, a late surge of about 4,000 students who enrolled in Catholic schools after public-school officials in Massachusetts announced they would start the school year online helped all but erase an expected sharp drop in enrollment. 

“Not only did they all come back, but we gained another 1,300 on top of that. All signs are pretty good. There are certainly no signs that people are leaving us. We’re kind of cautiously optimistic that upward enrollment trends will continue,” Carroll said.


A Challenge and an Opportunity

Most of the new students in Catholic schools are coming from public schools. That presents a tricky situation, Catholic school officials say, because new students may not know how to act or what’s expected of them.

But it’s also a chance to reach kids whose families may not be that interested in religion.

“It’s such a great opportunity for us to really just show the truth, beauty and goodness of Our Lord to them, that maybe they haven’t seen before,” said Vince Cascone, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Kansas City. “We all reach for our purpose, and we can only find that purpose through Jesus. And so our Catholic schools, working with parents, give young people an opportunity to see their purpose.”

Not all signs are positive. One challenge in the Archdiocese of New York is trying to accommodate families who want to go to Catholic schools but can’t afford them, said Superintendent Michael Deegan.

New York City’s economy and population have taken a hit during the pandemic and its aftermath. The city lost about 300,000 people between July 2020 and July 2021 and hasn’t recovered. Inflation is hurting poor families, Deegan said. And the community has seen serious crime increased about 31% between June 2021 and June 2022, according to the New York City Police Department

The archdiocese provides about $20 million a year in financial aid to families who want to send their children attend Catholic schools. But in some places, it’s not enough.

“We have families in the South Bronx who have not recovered financially from the pandemic,” Deegan said. “So there are families who are requesting to attend our schools; we don’t have the money to give them, despite giving out $20 million a year.”

Another problem Catholic schools encounter is personnel. Finding teachers isn’t easy. A nationwide teacher shortage is particularly keen in California, where some public-school districts are offering signing bonuses to try to lure candidates.

The problem is even tougher for Catholic schools seeking to be authentically Catholic, said Lyons, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

“As Catholic schools, we’re not just looking for great teachers — we’re looking for great Catholic teachers,” she said. “We want Catholic teachers, and practicing Catholic teachers, and it becomes particularly difficult.”

Despite problems, Deegan said he is “exceedingly optimistic about our Catholic schools.”

Coronavirus stimulus money from the federal government, though slow and hard to get, has helped Catholic schools in New York increase offerings. (Archdiocesan schools in New York have gotten about $7 million in federal pandemic-related Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools money of the $25 million they are entitled to, Deegan said.)

In September, every student will have a Chromebook laptop computer. The school system has also expanded its after-school and Saturday sessions for students who are struggling, using its own teachers and teachers provided by a third-party vendor called Catapult Learning who are trained in the school system’s way of doing things.


Making Learning More Catholic

What distinguishes Catholic schools from its public counterparts is a question several school administrators told the Register they often ask themselves.

The Catholic school system in the Archdiocese of Kansas City is vetting learning materials for its school principals to make sure the principles of the documents match up with Catholic teachings.

“Our schools all teach theology of the body,” said Superintendent Cascone, referring to the moral and theological approach to human sexuality developed by St. John Paul II before and during his papacy from 1978 to 2005. “So we want to make sure the things we bring in all align with theology of the body.”

Among the principles, Cascone said: “God created each person. God created them a certain way for a purpose, a reason. They’re loved the way they are. God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York use a social-media platform called Kognito to try to improve the mental health of students by helping them improve their coping skills through role-playing conversations and decisions. 

“Our hope is that we can get to the root cause in supporting them mentally and emotionally and spiritually before it becomes an acting-out behavioral problem,” said Superintendent Deegan.

The subject matter is known in education circles as social and emotional learning. It’s used in secular schools, but Deegan said Catholic schools in New York present Catholic approaches to practical problems.

“The work that we do on social-emotional is not simply clinical. It is done through the lens of our Catholic identity. Because it’s our Catholic identity that defines us,” Deegan said.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver has encouraged school officials there to ask why Catholic schools exist and to try to make sure they’re fulfilling the Church’s mission, said Superintendent Elias Moo.

One result is a 15-month teacher credential program for educators who have little experience but are willing to spend extra time learning both teaching tools and ways to impart the faith. The program, run by the Institute of Catholic Liberal Education, includes philosophy and theology and is influenced by St. John Paul II’s 1998 papal encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). It is beginning its second year this month.

The school system in Denver is also implementing a new history curriculum that includes Catholic ideas. One example: Fourth-grade history follows the state guidelines by emphasizing Colorado history, but unlike in public schools, it includes the influence on the American Southwest of the 16th-century appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the French missionaries who founded what became the Archdiocese of Denver.

The point of the new history curriculum, Moo said, is “being really intentional with how we look at the Church’s contributions in the context of the development of societies and civilizations.”

These are Catholic answers to secular education schools and curriculums, which take an approach that Moo said doesn’t reflect a Catholic mentality.

“It’s divorced from any sense of the supernatural sense of reality. It has become a very human-centric preparation and program,” Moo said, “whereas what we’re trying to do is God-centric. We’re leading students out of themselves to come to an encounter with Jesus Christ.”

Register correspondent Matt McDonald is the editor of New Boston Post.

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