Terry Golway
For parents and students in struggling Catholic schools, winter surely is the cruelest season. For it is now, in the first quarter of the year, that many parents and children learn that their schoolfor so many, their refugewill not reopen its doors in September. Actually, this is a best-case scenario for many. Far too often in the past, parents and students have gotten the bad news in springtime, after registration for alternative schools has closed. Apparently word has gotten to those who make these heart-wrenching decisions that earlier is far better than later, even if earlier gives parents time to organize embarrassing protests in the false hope of bringing about a change of heart. In a way, such protests offer testimony to the enduring value of Catholic schools. Closures late in the year, however, suggest a certain hardness of heart among the decision-makers.

On the day I write, the local newspapers report that four schools in a nearby diocese will close at the end of the academic year. A few weeks ago, two parishes a few miles from my own learned that their schools will mergeagain, not the worst scenario in the world, but depressing all the same.

What is to become of Catholic education in the United States? Perhaps that is the kind of question only those of us in snow-belt states would ask. A friend of mine, upon hearing my lament for the fate of Catholic elementary schools, sought to cheer me up with news that Catholic schools actually are under construction in places like Florida and Nevada.

That’s great, but it does not do much good for those of us with children in Catholic schools in the Northeast or the Midwest.

Now, before I sink any further into a depression, let me point out that the news is hardly all bad, even from my vantage point in northern, urbanized New Jersey. In the forsaken city of Newark, just a five-minute walk from where I sit, extraordinary stories are unfolding in places like St. Benedict’s Prep, an all-boys school, and St. Vincent Academy, an all-girls school. Last year I wrote about the little miracles that take place every day in Newark’s Sacred Heart School, an institution that educated generations of white Catholics and now attends to the needs of non-Catholic African-Americans.

That said, at this time of year it is hard not to fret about the future, and to wonder what next winter, and the following winter, will bring.

The easy solution is to deny that a crisis exists. But it does, and the evidence is all around us. Another easy answer, one I have proposed myself, is to assert with great righteousness that we cannot walk away from urban non-Catholic students who regard our schools as their lifesavers. While that is true, it ignores another issue: Should dioceses subsidize Catholic schools with non-Catholic populations, while schools with substantial Catholic populations struggle?

I have no answer, but I pose the question because I think it is important and worthy of discussion. I know, from my own involvement in my parish school, that the Catholic school crisis is not just an inner-city problem. These days, it is no easy task to attract families to suburban Catholic schools, especially in high-tax states with good school systems. Homeowners in my town pay at least $10,000 a year in property taxes, and some pay quite a bit more. It is hardly a wonder that parents would decide to use public schools, when they are paying so dearly for them. I know of many parents who fit this description.

Those who decide against Catholic schools because of hefty tax bills can be lured back to Catholic education only if their public schools begin to fail, or if they are presented with an economic incentive in the form of tax credits and vouchers. One would not wish the former on anybody; one cannot imagine the latter happening any time soon.

Consolidation would seem to offer a middle ground, and I was pleased to see that in the most recent round of closings in and around my home diocese of Newark, parents and children are being presented with alternatives, rather than having doors shut in their faces. Two or three struggling schools might make for one successful school, assuming that the diocese is truly committed to consolidation.

Some priests I know have argued that while there clearly are fewer priests today, the priests we do have are better prepared and better trained than those who served during the golden age of the old urban parish. (That is not to say, of course, that priests from the Father O’Malley era somehow did not measure up!) That suggests a model for 21st-century Catholic education: fewer schools, but better schools.

Better schools create their own momentum. There is nothing quite like word of mouth when it comes to such issues as education. If word on the street has it that a certain school has a great principal, or that test scores in a certain school are not what they should be, people make decisions accordingly. And they do so quickly and decisively.

If Catholic schools can emerge from the current crisis with even better reputations, if the undoubted dedication and selflessness of Catholic school teachers can be better known and appreciated, then this time of year may not be so depressing in the not-so-distant future.

For now, though, I just hope that all those who received bad news in recent weeks find a place in another Catholic school. Ultimately, they are our best advertisements.

Terry Golway is a writer for The New York Observer.

Comments

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john w. bushman | 3/20/2006 - 5:48pm
Terry Golway's article hits home here where the parish school is closing at the end of the school year just as we're completing our 75th year. There are two nearby schools that also have low enrollments and are available for our students. But the "elephant in the room" in our case and in the article is the fact that neither the parishioners nor the parents of the students and the Parent Guild were involved in the decision to close. While we were aware our school had problems no one even knew discussions were going on. We learn after the fact that the local pastors, the principals, and the diocese studied this over a two year period. We learn from an article in the local newspaper concerning our school that the diocese some six months earlier had hired a marketing firm and had a woman religious on staff to work with schools in financial difficulty.

Our Parent Guild began addressing the issue and came up with financial pledges from members and other ideas but it was too little too late, the decision to close will not be reversed. Had they been involved from the beginning perhaps the outcome would have been different. How is it that some 40 years after Vatican II the laity are treated so shabbily, like children? Not much has changed for many in the pews, it's still "pay, pray, and obey". It's no wonder, as one study regarding contributions at Catholic parishes versus those at Protestant churches indicated, Catholics don't have a feeling of ownership in their parish.

Michael Pontarelli, OSM | 3/2/2006 - 2:57pm
I too am deeply saddened to be living trough the closing of Catholic schools. However, as I evaluate the crisis I can be convinced that because many of them no longer deliver what they promise: A Catholic religous education, they should be closed. Instead of promoting "the love of learning and knowledge of God" too many Catholic schools have accepted the standard that all is well if test scores, athletic scores, decathlon scores, and waiting lists are up; that the students are becoming good citizens and their "stake-holders" are satisfied. Catholic schools have accepted the mediocre standards of their public school rivals. Indeed good Catholic schools ought to be promoting the same ideals and goals of the best public schools AND they must lead the students to God as religiuos themes are taught across the curriculum. That is the religious moral of literature, the ethics of the lesson in history, etc. are not neglected. As more teachers come to Catholic schools without a wit of religious perception and are even offended by it, Catholic schools risk the loss of their very purpose, to lead students to God. And they collect tuition money under false pretense.

Linda Winter | 3/6/2006 - 4:59pm
This is in response to Terry Golway’s lament about Catholic School closings. While I agree that it is not just an inner city problem, I disagree with how this issue of school closure is being framed. Catholic School Education should not be defined as an alternative to failing public schools in the urban core, nor as a place to foster elite upper middle class college bound suburban students. Catholic School Education must be understood as a ministry of the Catholic community. It may be the ministry of one parish (the traditional parish school), several parishes (new consolidated neighborhood schools) or the Diocese itself (urban or rural schools educating many non-Catholics). With this understanding, the core value underlying all ministries, evangelization, can be understood in context. In our individual and regional parish schools that evangelization means formation of our youth. In the urban core, evangelization is more subtle, and similar to that of other outreach ministries. In addition, when Catholic School Education is understood as a ministry of the faith community, then it will continue to be an expression of the giftedness of the community that offers it and not just a burden to the parents of school age children. The sacrifice that allows Catholic School Education to thrive must not be that only of the parents, teachers and administrators of the Schools, but of the entire Catholic Community that supports and provides it. With a reawakening of a true spirituality of stewardship Catholic School Education will continue to prosper. Academic excellence is assumed. Last year, the U.S. Bishops issued a statement regarding the future of Catholic School Education, entitled ”Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium”. In it, the USCCB affirms that “the future of Catholic School Education depends on the entire Catholic community embracing wholeheartedly the concept of stewardship of time, talent and treasure and translating stewardship into concrete action”. Let’s accept responsibility for forming our youth and serving our inner cities.

john w. bushman | 3/20/2006 - 5:48pm
Terry Golway's article hits home here where the parish school is closing at the end of the school year just as we're completing our 75th year. There are two nearby schools that also have low enrollments and are available for our students. But the "elephant in the room" in our case and in the article is the fact that neither the parishioners nor the parents of the students and the Parent Guild were involved in the decision to close. While we were aware our school had problems no one even knew discussions were going on. We learn after the fact that the local pastors, the principals, and the diocese studied this over a two year period. We learn from an article in the local newspaper concerning our school that the diocese some six months earlier had hired a marketing firm and had a woman religious on staff to work with schools in financial difficulty.

Our Parent Guild began addressing the issue and came up with financial pledges from members and other ideas but it was too little too late, the decision to close will not be reversed. Had they been involved from the beginning perhaps the outcome would have been different. How is it that some 40 years after Vatican II the laity are treated so shabbily, like children? Not much has changed for many in the pews, it's still "pay, pray, and obey". It's no wonder, as one study regarding contributions at Catholic parishes versus those at Protestant churches indicated, Catholics don't have a feeling of ownership in their parish.

Michael Pontarelli, OSM | 3/2/2006 - 2:57pm
I too am deeply saddened to be living trough the closing of Catholic schools. However, as I evaluate the crisis I can be convinced that because many of them no longer deliver what they promise: A Catholic religous education, they should be closed. Instead of promoting "the love of learning and knowledge of God" too many Catholic schools have accepted the standard that all is well if test scores, athletic scores, decathlon scores, and waiting lists are up; that the students are becoming good citizens and their "stake-holders" are satisfied. Catholic schools have accepted the mediocre standards of their public school rivals. Indeed good Catholic schools ought to be promoting the same ideals and goals of the best public schools AND they must lead the students to God as religiuos themes are taught across the curriculum. That is the religious moral of literature, the ethics of the lesson in history, etc. are not neglected. As more teachers come to Catholic schools without a wit of religious perception and are even offended by it, Catholic schools risk the loss of their very purpose, to lead students to God. And they collect tuition money under false pretense.

Linda Winter | 3/6/2006 - 4:59pm
This is in response to Terry Golway’s lament about Catholic School closings. While I agree that it is not just an inner city problem, I disagree with how this issue of school closure is being framed. Catholic School Education should not be defined as an alternative to failing public schools in the urban core, nor as a place to foster elite upper middle class college bound suburban students. Catholic School Education must be understood as a ministry of the Catholic community. It may be the ministry of one parish (the traditional parish school), several parishes (new consolidated neighborhood schools) or the Diocese itself (urban or rural schools educating many non-Catholics). With this understanding, the core value underlying all ministries, evangelization, can be understood in context. In our individual and regional parish schools that evangelization means formation of our youth. In the urban core, evangelization is more subtle, and similar to that of other outreach ministries. In addition, when Catholic School Education is understood as a ministry of the faith community, then it will continue to be an expression of the giftedness of the community that offers it and not just a burden to the parents of school age children. The sacrifice that allows Catholic School Education to thrive must not be that only of the parents, teachers and administrators of the Schools, but of the entire Catholic Community that supports and provides it. With a reawakening of a true spirituality of stewardship Catholic School Education will continue to prosper. Academic excellence is assumed. Last year, the U.S. Bishops issued a statement regarding the future of Catholic School Education, entitled ”Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium”. In it, the USCCB affirms that “the future of Catholic School Education depends on the entire Catholic community embracing wholeheartedly the concept of stewardship of time, talent and treasure and translating stewardship into concrete action”. Let’s accept responsibility for forming our youth and serving our inner cities.

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