WASHINGTON – For today’s Catholic schools to thrive, school officials must rethink traditional ways of operating and try innovative approaches, said a report highlighting the current challenges facing Catholic schools.
The report also calls on the Catholic community at large to play a key role in restoring its schools.
The 32-page report, “Making God Known, Loved, and Served: The Future of Catholic Primary and Secondary Schools in the United States,” was prepared by the University of Notre Dame Task Force on Catholic Education – a group of educators, administrators, diocesan representatives, philanthropists and investment specialists.
The report was a response to the 2005 pastoral statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops titled “Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.”
The Notre Dame report, released in December, does not gloss over Catholic schools’ difficulties, pointing out in the second paragraph how enrollment has declined from more than 5 million students 40 years ago to half that number today even as the Catholic population has grown.
It also notes low salaries for teachers at Catholic schools along with rising costs and tuition, demographic shifts, the changing role of religion in the lives of American Catholics and increasing options for educational choices.
But “Catholic schools matter more now than ever, and they work, as study after study demonstrates,” it said.
The report is the result of a yearlong study, commissioned by the Indiana university’s president, Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, and chaired by Holy Cross Father Timothy Scully, director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives.
It does not just focus on the difficulties today’s schools face but instead states at the outset that “Catholic schools can and must be strong in our nation’s third century.” Its authors also stipulate that “extraordinary chapters lie ahead” if the Catholic community at large is willing to pitch in and help.
To demonstrate how higher education can play a part in assisting Catholic elementary and secondary schools, the report highlights Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program, founded in 1994, which annually supports about 200 teachers in more than 100 Catholic schools across the country.
The program also includes leadership for Catholic school principals and is developing a consulting initiative to provide administrators and Catholic school advocates with help in marketing, strategic planning and investing.
Other examples of the university’s efforts to help the Catholic school system include the recently launched Magnificat School project, which provides principals, pastors, parents and school board members with professional support and development training to strengthen schools in danger of closing.
Notre Dame also has been convening regular National Parish School Leadership Team Workshops for pastors, principals and school board presidents to discuss Catholic identity, marketing, leadership, strategic planning and financial management.
The report notes the impact that declining numbers of priests and religious have had on Catholic schools but points out that Catholics should not just bemoan “bygone eras,” and instead use “entrepreneurial energy” to come up with other means to train and develop new school leaders.
It also challenges Catholic schools to find ways to welcome Hispanic students, noting that only 3 percent of Latino families send their children to Catholic schools even though the number of Hispanic Catholics is increasing.
“The church and its schools must find ways to serve and be engaged by the growing Latino population,” the report states, acknowledging that several obstacles must be overcome, including the perception that Catholic schools are for the elite, financial concerns for families, and linguistic and language barriers for students.
The report labels the traditional parish school as both the “dominant model” and the “type of Catholic school most under duress, most vulnerable to demographic shifts and eventual closure.”
Conversely, it credits a variety of Catholic school initiatives for being part of a “new era of innovation,” such as school consortiums in dioceses where urban schools share resources; Cristo Rey schools, where inner-city students take part in work-study programs; and the tuition-free schools in the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., where the stewardship policy in the diocese eliminates tuition fees.
The authors of the report praised the successful initiatives that are already under way, saying they prove that when bishops, pastors and lay leaders collaborate “Catholic schools can flourish where they once struggled.”
“Our challenge is to raise awareness” of school initiatives that work, they said, while stressing the importance of “selecting and enhancing the best model for a particular school or diocesan context.”
“One size does not fit all,” the authors concluded.