The National Catholic Review
Vincent Gragnani
For 20 years, West Philadelphia’s St. Francis de Sales School was on the diocesan dole. Like many inner-city schools, it could not support itself with tuition and parish funds. Its principal, Sister Constance Marie Touey, I.H.M., feared a decade ago that St. Francis de Sales would suffer the fate that so many urban Catholic schools have met over the past 15 years. There came a time when they were starting to close Catholic schools, she recalls. And we weren’t going to let them close St. Francis de Sales.

Guided by the example of Msgr. John Flynn, former director of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Sister Constance and her colleagues put together an aggressive development plan. Within two years, they were off the dole, and have since hired a gym teacher and an art teacher. They have also wired every classroom with Internet access and have kept enrollments steady.

The diocese’s interparochial fund, which assists economically disadvantaged schools and parishes, helps carry you through, Sister Constance said. But if you want to keep the school going and do great thing for kids, get off the dole and move forward. It’s like getting off welfare.

Sister Constance tells an inspiring story, and many dioceses, religious communities and laypeople can tell similar onesstories of bucking the trend and making urban Catholic elementary schools thrive.

Of course, that trend is a difficult one to buck. The religious communities that once ran inner-city schools are declining in numbers. They now must hire lay people, who need a livable wage to support their families. Local parishes no longer have the funds to support the schools. So as tuition increases to keep the schools afloat, enrollments decline, and many schools are forced to close their doors.

Catholics have been hearing about this trend for decades. In the mid-1960’s, 5.5 million children attended 13,000 Catholic schools. By the mid-1990’s, that number had dropped to 2.5 million attending 8,900 Catholic schools. Enrollments went up slightly between 1995 and 2000, but in the last five years an additional 300 schools have closed, most of them in urban areas, according to the National Catholic Education Association.

In an effort to turn those numbers around, the N.C.E.A. has become a partner with the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in a study of more than 2,000 urban Catholic elementary schools. The investigators are turning to parents, students, teachers and administrators to find out why some thrive and some do not, and to discuss ways to reinvigorate those that lag. The results of that study will be released this month; but in the meantime, years of experience and anecdotal evidence have already told Dale McDonald, P.V.B.M., the N.C.E.A.’s director of public policy, that success is all about leadership. What we’ve seen in some of these places that would have all the elements for failure, Sister McDonald says, is that success comes from dynamic and creative leadership at the diocesan and school levelpeople who know how to create partnerships and get things done. They turn things around. These dynamic leaders, she added, think outside the box and create partnerships with lay people, often in the business community.

Though Catholic elementary schools were founded in the 19th century to provide religious instruction for children who would otherwise attend public schools that were influenced by Protestantand often anti-Catholicideologies, many urban Catholic schools today are neighborhood institutions that retain their identity while serving families from a variety of religious traditions. This provides their students with a quality education in a community atmosphere that is often not found in urban public schools.

In the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, where the archdiocese made headlines this June by closing Our Lady of Presentation School two days before school opening, a lay foundation has made a formal proposal to buy the property and maintain it as a school and community center. Kevin Carragee, a product of Brooklyn’s Catholic schools and now head of this Presentation Foundation, said parents, non-parents, Catholics and non-Catholics in Brighton all recognize the school’s importance in their ethnically diverse community, which has a 23 percent poverty rate. Parochial schools and churches have been cornerstones in these communities, he said. They weren’t just educational institutions, they were important civic institutions. Ours is a fragile urban neighborhood, he added. We can’t afford to lose that anchor.

Noting in a statement issued in June 2005 that Catholic schools are a major force for closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students in inner-city environments, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on school leaders to utilize the collective wisdom of the members of our Church.

We need to remind the business and civic communities of the contributions made by the graduates of Catholic schools who help to build the success of these enterprises, the bishops said. Diocesan and school leaders should continue actively to pursue financial support from the business and civic communities. Two religious communities with long histories of educating children in the United States have made headlines in recent years doing just that.

The Jesuits and the Brothers of the Christian Schools, or De La Salle Brothers, have drawn on the resources of Catholics and non-Catholics nationwide to build and fund dozens of tuition-free middle schools that serve economically disadvantaged students in urban areas. All of these are attempts to get back to the charisms of the congregations, said David Carroll, F.S.C., who as a former associate provincial has visited each of his community’s San Miguel schools. Giving education to the poor in the past was giving manpower. Now we don’t have the manpower, so it’s about going out to get funds.

You have to look to a new model, said Brother David, who also serves on the board of the newly opened Cristo Rey New York High School in East Harlem. Because the old model of parish supportlinking a school to a parishisn’t working.

The De La Salle Brothers were founded in 1680 to establish Christian schools in France. Today the 7,500-member community staffs schools in 80 countries. The newest of these are called San Miguel Schools. From Providence, R.I., to San Francisco, the De La Salle Brothers are currently running 15 San Miguel schools. They all are in economically struggling areas. Each school charges approximately $400 per year, roughly 5 percent of what it costs to educate a student.

There are now Cristo Rey High Schools nationwide that replicate a program developed for Latino students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago in 1996. The students work in local business offices one day a week to help pay their tuition and to gain valuable on-the-job experience. The Jesuits also sponsor small middle schools, called Nativity-model schools, that charge little or no tuition.

These schools, though often located in areas where gangs dominate, boast high success rates. Nearly 90 percent of Nativity and San Miguel alumni graduate from high school in four years, and more than 75 percent of them enroll in two-year or four-year colleges and universities, according to the foundations that promote them.

Schools like these often derive funding from Catholics who were educated in schools run by religious communities. There are many people I have met over the years who say, I went to Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin when it was free, and now I owe,’ said Brother David. Responsible Catholic laypeople have valued the education they received at minor cost and say that now it’s time to give back. They say yes, and say yes for the right reasons, not for tax deductions.

Brother David has experienced on a personal level the decline of the old model. His alma mater, St. Joachim in Brooklyn, once housed two classes per grade. This spring, the school closed its doors for the last time, one of 23 schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn to be closed this year.

In an effort to save those that remain, the diocese is aggressively supporting scholarship programs that will enable inner-city families to send their children to Catholic schools. The diocese is also looking at a new model for the running of its elementary schools, in which control of the school will be in the hands of a lay board instead of a pastor or principal. The diocese’s high schools have used that model for years, and, according to a diocesan spokesman, Frank DeRosa, this method has worked well.

Last February, when Brooklyn announced the closing and reorganization of its schools, one observer told The New York Times that Brooklyn’s schools were good at the pastoral stuff, the educational stuff, but not the business stuff in the main.

In Indianapolis, the archdiocese has already shifted business administration away from the hands of inner-city principals and into the hands of an archdiocesan consortium, with the idea that schools with limited resources will do better if those resources are pooled, and that principals should be focused more on education than collecting tuition and trying to keep books balanced. The Archdiocesan Schools Consortium encompasses six of the archdiocese’s seven inner-city schoolsone opted outand is based on a model already adopted in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

We’re returning our schools to the principals as educators and letting others do the administration, said Annette Lentz, the executive director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. It includes a lot of common-sense things. I think it’s a good model for others. We’re already getting calls from other dioceses.

The District of Columbia’s consortium was cited by Special Programs for Improving Catholic Education, a joint project of Boston College and the N.C.E.A. that identifies, validates and diffuses Catholic elementary and secondary programs that work, so that others can replicate or adapt them. Teams from programs selected by Spice share their stories at an annual summer symposium. Next year’s topic will be Preserving Urban Education.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which was cited by Spice in 2003, should be an inspiration to dioceses looking to maintain their educational ministries to inner-city children. It has made its inner-city schools a top priority since the national trend toward closing schools became clear. Most in the diocese’s central education office, which is located in Indianapolis’s inner city, credit Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, O.S.B., for leadership in meeting this priority. We’re experiencing all the ills of urban schools that you’re reading about in the news, no question, said Joe Peters, associate executive director for Catholic education in Indianapolis. I think the difference is that this archbishop has made a strong commitment to keep these open.

Nearly 10 years ago, Indianapolis launched a capital campaign that raised more than $20 million, which it used to rebuild from scratch two of its inner-city schools. It also renovated the five others and created an endowment for financial aid for economically disadvantaged children. Of that sum of more than $20 million, $5 million came from the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation. Pouring money into the inner-city schools did not stop there. A few years later, the Lilly Endowment offered the archdiocese a $10 million grant to enhance its urban schools if it could raise $5 million to match.

Because of our archbishop’s commitment in prior years, they had great faith in us, Annette Lentz noted. We came together as a team of leaders and said, Do we accept this challenge?’ With the archbishop at our helm, we decided we wanted to do it. I thought, How could we not?’

The archdiocese did not go to its already financially strapped parishes but to local businesses, and it raised more than the $5 million it needed. The money is now being used to reach out to specific populations, including children with special needs and the growing Hispanic community. It is also being used to recruit and retain teachers with in-service programs and workshops and to raise standards by bringing in top consultants.

Sister Constance, the Philadelphia principal who got her school off the diocesan welfare rolls, stressed the importance of partnering with successful individuals and businesses. We keep reaching out, and all over we find people who would join our ministry if they just knew what was happening, she said. We continually dream dreams for our students, then find people who can make those dreams come true.

While many students sell magazines, popcorn, chocolate, wrapping paper and raffle tickets to raise money for their schools, St. Francis de Sales eschews that as part of the old model.

For years, we were an immigrant church, Sister Constance said. Now we’re a mainline church. And yet we’re still selling $5 tickets to someone who can write us a check for $1,000.

She has brought her message to N.C.E.A. conferences, and this fall she will address the principals of all of the 66 schools run by her community.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters have been educating American children for more than 150 years. Their Philadelphia-based Immaculata branch began in 1858, when St. John Neumann, C.Ss.R., then bishop of Philadelphia, invited I.H.M. sisters to staff a school in what later became one of the largest school systems in the United States. Like many religious communities, this 1,050-member institute is declining in number, but according to Sister Patricia Healy, who heads the community’s elementary schools, it remains committed to educating the urban poor. Of the 30 schools from which it has had to withdraw, most are suburban, and all are schools with firm faith foundations. They also have strong lay faculties with whom the Immaculata community stays in touch and invites to various workshops and meetings.

Because our community is committed to the abandoned poor, we have done everything possible to remain with the poor in the urban areas, Sister Patricia said. We have a duty to educate our children.

Vincent Gragnani is managing editor for Worrall Community Newspapers, Union, N.J.

Comments

Katherine Murphy | 2/23/2006 - 8:49pm
“Getting Catholic Schools Off the Dole (2/13)” is not a principle of Catholic social teaching, but making an option for urban schools is a Catholic principle. Since when is Catholic charity for children understood as being “on the dole?” Just as Mother Teresa did not see her work as social work, neither is Catholic education social work; it is a vocation. And I should think that the dioceses around the nation should view Catholic education as a whole, but most especially, Catholic urban education, as their vocation.

I teach in an urban Catholic high school that the archdiocese is trying to “get off the dole.” Since I have been at the school, the archdiocesan contribution has been cut in half. What is the result? Our tuition is rising yet again to over $8,000 and we are being forced to make bad learning choices in favor of balancing the budget. Please do not think that we are lazy about raising money. Don’t cast on us the same stereotypes that the secular American culture tosses at welfare mothers and the poor because they are lies. We raise more money in tuition assistance than other schools in the area; the only difference is that the vast majority of our students need assistance (70%) and we just can’t bridge the giant wealth gap.

The deceased Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Hickey, used to say in reference to urban Catholic schools like mine that we have Catholic schools not because they are affordable or because the students are Catholic; we support urban Catholic schools because WE are Catholic. Rather than getting Catholic schools off the dole, we should sacrifice to support more urban Catholic schools for the poor. And by doing so, we would become more Catholic.

Katherine Murphy | 2/21/2007 - 3:12pm
“Getting Catholic Schools Off the Dole,” by Vincent Gragnani, (2/13) is not a principle of Catholic social teaching, but making an option for urban schools is a Catholic principle. Since when is Catholic charity for children understood as being “on the dole”? Just as Mother Teresa did not see her work as social work, neither is Catholic education social work; it is a vocation. And I should think that the dioceses around the nation should view Catholic education as a whole, but most especially, Catholic urban education, as their vocation.

I teach in an urban Catholic high school that the archdiocese is trying to “get off the dole.” Since I have been at the school, the archdiocesan contribution has been cut in half. What is the result? Our tuition is rising, yet again, to over $8,000, and we are being forced to make bad educational choices in favor of balancing the budget. Please do not think that we are lazy about raising money. Don’t cast on us the same stereotypes that the secular American culture tosses at welfare mothers and the poor, because they are lies. We raise more money in tuition assistance than other schools in the area. The only difference is that the vast majority of our students need assistance (70 percent), and we just cannot bridge the giant wealth gap.

The deceased archbishop of Washington, Cardinal James Hickey, used to say in reference to urban Catholic schools like mine that we have Catholic schools not because they are affordable or because the students are Catholic; we support urban Catholic schools because we are Catholic. Rather than getting Catholic schools off the dole, we should sacrifice to support more urban Catholic schools for the poor. By doing so, we would become more Catholic.

Frank Heelan | 2/21/2007 - 3:02pm
Vincent Gragnani’s article, “Getting Catholic Schools Off the Dole” (2/13), delineated several models to fund “urban” Catholic schools to replace the traditional parish schools. These models included the following: aggressive development and endowment plans, dynamic leadership, corporate and foundation funding, school advisory councils and a diocesan consortium for business so principals may concentrate on educational concerns.

But the author never mentioned two critical signs of hope and promise for Catholic schools that have emerged over the previous few years. First, the Bush administration has funded faith-based education with its vibrant support of Catholic schools in the areas of professional staff development and special education students. Second, the Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee models giving vouchers to parents of inner-city children wishing to attend Catholic schools has placed on the table the “choice” model.

If economic “freedom of religion” is to prevail in this country, we must abandon the immigrant parish paradigm of self-sufficiency and clergy control over Catholic schools and negotiate some concessions for government funding. Most countries of the world have adopted a “choice” system of funding. The Netherlands, for example, allows public funding for Muslim, Hebrew, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant and government schools.

In the United States for 2005 there was a net loss in savings for Americans of .05 percent, the first decline since 1932 and 1933. Catholics can no longer afford to maintain a separatist educational system that costs $4,000 per student for elementary school and double that number for secondary school. The nuns and religious do not exist to provide a “free” Catholic education, and the two-salary moms and dads cannot eke out another salary to fund their children’s education.

The purpose of Catholic schools is to convey the good news of Jesus Christ to students and parents, while striving for academic excellence within a safe environment. Let’s bring back the children and parents of all income levels into the Catholic schools by expanding government funding over time and allow the taxes paid by Catholics to follow their children into the schools of their choice. The time is ripe to launch authentic school diversity with government funding.

Katherine Murphy | 2/23/2006 - 8:49pm
“Getting Catholic Schools Off the Dole (2/13)” is not a principle of Catholic social teaching, but making an option for urban schools is a Catholic principle. Since when is Catholic charity for children understood as being “on the dole?” Just as Mother Teresa did not see her work as social work, neither is Catholic education social work; it is a vocation. And I should think that the dioceses around the nation should view Catholic education as a whole, but most especially, Catholic urban education, as their vocation.

I teach in an urban Catholic high school that the archdiocese is trying to “get off the dole.” Since I have been at the school, the archdiocesan contribution has been cut in half. What is the result? Our tuition is rising yet again to over $8,000 and we are being forced to make bad learning choices in favor of balancing the budget. Please do not think that we are lazy about raising money. Don’t cast on us the same stereotypes that the secular American culture tosses at welfare mothers and the poor because they are lies. We raise more money in tuition assistance than other schools in the area; the only difference is that the vast majority of our students need assistance (70%) and we just can’t bridge the giant wealth gap.

The deceased Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Hickey, used to say in reference to urban Catholic schools like mine that we have Catholic schools not because they are affordable or because the students are Catholic; we support urban Catholic schools because WE are Catholic. Rather than getting Catholic schools off the dole, we should sacrifice to support more urban Catholic schools for the poor. And by doing so, we would become more Catholic.