A couple of months ago, I wrote a gloomy, mid-winter’s column about a depressing round of Catholic school closings in and around my home in New Jersey. I referred to the early months of the calendar year as the saddest time of year for many Catholic school students, because often that is when various dioceses and archdioceses announce their school closings for the following academic year. As is often the case when I write about Catholic schools, I received plenty of mail, electronically and otherwise. Most correspondents insisted, with great passion, that I was far too gloomy about the bigger picture. After some reflection, I have to concede the point. While many dioceses and religious orders clearly are struggling to keep schools openand often such struggles end in failurea relentless focus on numbers does little justice to the work Catholic schools are performing in spectacularly diverse settings.
So, chastened by my correspondents, I have spent some time in search of a brighter picture, a more optimistic view of the present and future of Catholic education. Let me share a few observations.
First of all, it ought to go without saying that Catholic schools continue to serve the underserved in neighborhoods Catholics have largely abandoned. Yes, schools in such neighborhoods have closed and will continue to close. But it is nothing short of a miracle that they exist at all. Their mere presence, even in a shrunken form, is a tribute to the church’s commitment to the poor, regardless of where, how or if they worship.
Of course, these schools are more than just a presence. Even those with shrinking student populations are vital places, filled with dedicated lay teachers who could be making double their salaries, or more, in public schools, and with priests and religious who personalize the church’s mission to the least among us. Several weeks ago, the New York Times columnist Dan Barry visited a school slated for closing by the Archdiocese of New York. He wrote about the trials and successes of two nuns who, by sheer determination and love, made their school into a beacon of hope, knowledge and faith for the inner-city students it served. The school may close, but Barry’s piece reminds us of the vital role women religious have played in educating generations of Catholic school students.
That point about selfless dedication leads to another positive thought: In most Catholic schools, parents are more than a support group. They are a vital presence in the daily life of the school and its students. I am about to finish my first year as a member of my school’s advisory board, and my wife is a long-standing member of the school’s fundraising organization. From that vantage point, I am amazed to see how one person or one family truly can make a difference in a school mercifully free of the red tape associated with public schools.
I know many parents who express nothing but frustration about their attempts to become more involved in their local public schools. Work rules, bureaucratic regulations and sheer size often make these schools more remote than they ought to be. That is not to say that every public school is a cold and forbidding placemost are not. But I have found Catholic schools to be especially welcoming of parental involvement, in part out of necessity, but mostly out of a spirit of community, shared values and concern for individual students.
In short, I am happy to report that personal experience and further reflection compel me to consider a brighter side to Catholic education, in contrast with my dour assessments of a few months ago. But reflection and experience also compel me to point out that happy talk and heartwarming tales go only so far. If Catholic schools are to continue their remarkable success stories, if they are to be the educators of immigrants as well as of ambitious upper-middle-class children far removed from the immigrant experience, they have to compete with public schools and more expensive private schools.
The question, of course, is how. How do you persuade suburban parents, even those relatively well off, to pay tuition on top of high property taxes? How do you persuade parents in inner cities that their confidence in Catholic education is not misguided, that the system is not withering away?
I wish I knew the answers. If I did, I would not be shy about sharing them. Still, my personal experience suggests a few ideas.
Catholic schools have to do a better job of marketing the extras they offer. The first, of course, is God. That’s not a bad place to start! But there’s moreCatholic schools have a reputation for emphasizing the basics, particularly in reading programs. That is an important selling point.
Catholic schools are remarkably free of politics and political influence, because they operate beyond the constraints of government. Parents whose children attend schools in heavily politicized districts know exactly how politics can poison education.
There is a huge market for quality after-care programs. Catholic schools can and will entice more students if their after-care facilities and programs can measure up to, or surpass, those in the local public school.
Advocates for Catholic education can no longer wait for the day, which may never come, when local governments around the nation adopt the supposed magic bullet of vouchers. Instead, they have to respond creatively, with a sales pitch designed for their individual parish and community.
Of course, a few prayers will help, too.