By George P. Matysek Jr.
Within the last several years, a wave of Catholic school closings has hit several big cities. In 2005 alone, the archdioceses of Chicago and Detroit each closed 18 schools and the Diocese of Brooklyn closed 19 schools.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore closed or consolidated 10 schools over the last several years, and the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., closed or merged 11.
To prevent more schools from shutting their doors, many dioceses are looking at alternative approaches to Catholic education. The days are long gone when schools were strictly parish-based institutions that relied on women religious, priests and brothers to serve as teachers and staff.
Today, some dioceses are implementing regional solutions to the challenge of declining enrollment and escalating tuition. Many are emphasizing good stewardship while others are looking to the state for more assistance.
Six dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, recently formed the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium to help make Catholic education more attractive to families and provide economic support.
The Annapolis-based consortium is headed by Dr. Mary Ellen Hrutka, who plans to leverage the size of the organization to get the best possible rates on books, supplies, energy and more. She also plans to help administrators understand what benefits are available to their teachers and students under state and federal law.
“The best way to address issues is collectively,” said Dr. Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “We can no longer be working in a vacuum.”
Cardinal William H. Keeler said the consortium “will provide the organizational framework through which all interested parties can work together to be part of the schools’ continued success.”
The Diocese of Wichita, Kan., has implemented a stewardship model of Catholic education. Since 1993, education has been offered tuition-free to the children of active Catholic parishioners there. Parishioners are encouraged to tithe – giving a percentage of their income to their church.
Elsewhere, the Archdiocese of Chicago recently held its first summit for Catholic school education in Illinois. The diocese instituted a strategic plan called “Genesis,” which emphasizes Catholic identity and stewardship. It also makes use of the “Big Shoulders Fund,” which supports Catholic education in inner-city Chicago.
With the help of multimillion-dollar contributions from anonymous donors, the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., has reopened seven closed inner-city schools now known as “Jubilee Schools.”
Inner-city Baltimore Catholic schools have similarly benefited from donations from corporations, individuals and others through the Partners in Excellence program that provides scholarships to low-income families.
Religious orders have also contributed innovative ideas, establishing tuition-free schools throughout the country. The Cristo Rey, San Miguel and Nativity network of schools operate in many cities, including Baltimore.
“The challenge is to make sure our Catholic schools never become elitist,” said Dr. Valenti. “It’s not insurmountable. It takes an innovative approach.”
There are currently more than 2.3 million students enrolled in Catholic schools throughout the country, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Catholic News Service contributed to this article.