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 school - for so many, their refuge - will 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.