Last week, I explored some of the reasons why Catholic Schools are in crisis. The latest statistic illustrating this crisis claims that 2,000 American Catholic schools have closed since 1999. Let me offer some suggestions for ending this crisis:
Pope Francis has called for a poor Church to serve the poor. This challenges us to consider why we even have Catholic schools. What is the purpose of Catholic schools? If the answer is “To serve the parents who choose to send them” then perhaps we have discovered one reason why Catholic schools are in crisis. Catholic schools were not established to be another private school option. And they certainly weren’t set up to only serve its own.
In Montana, 25% of our Catholic school students are enrolled in tuition-free Indian schools. Those schools were established to serve the marginalized students. We need to further embrace the vision of Catholic schools serving the poor.
This doesn’t mean that only the poor should be enrolled. It means that our mission needs to have a higher purpose of changing our culture by serving the poor. When we embrace this mission, then we have a sense of purpose and vision which can work to transform our schools into ministry. We can proclaim our value to our Church and to our communities which transcends parish boundaries. If we can’t proclaim a higher purpose, then our Catholic school system will resemble our Catholic hospital system where the Catholic identity is hard to distinguish.
When we take a “free market” approach, we can accept the closings of restaurants, shopping malls, and schools as part of life. “They just couldn’t compete” we might say, or “people weren’t interested.” But we should view the demise of Catholic schools as OUR problem. We (the Church as well as we, the country) run the risk of losing an institution with tremendous potential for good.
This crisis shouldn’t be dealt with a compartmental approach. It’s not just the problem of one parish, for example, or one town. It’s the problem for all Catholics because we risk losing a valuable asset for the future. And it’s the problem for business and community leaders since we lose an institution which has given (and could give) so much to the community
The traditional model of Catholic elementary schools puts the pastor as the de facto superintendent. There are many problems inherent in this system:
- Governance is based on authority, not on expertise
- The schools can sometimes drift due to inattention or attention to individual priorities.
- The parochial model leads to an insulated view of the school (serving its own).
As Catholic participation in parishes wanes, elementary schools need to think beyond its shrinking boundaries and traditions. Without the guidance of intelligent and committed lay members, many schools cannot make this jump. If the Catholic school system cannot divorce itself from the traditional model of governance, many elementary schools will continue to flounder. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for priests as spiritual leaders and as administrators seated at the Board.
There are a myriad of solutions which may or may not improve the efficiency of schools: new tuition models, new instructional approaches, new types of schools, etc. But those changes cannot happen without engaged and empowered boards.
Many Catholic schools have already been separated from parishes through consortiums and governance revisions. However, without effective boards, they lack the same vision. Boards must be cultivated, trained, and empowered to help shoulder the burden. For a more detailed study of the problems of governance, I recommend reading: http://goo.gl/elVG9r
We need to build partnerships to strengthen our Catholic schools. We need to proclaim our mission in order to convince parents, parishioners, donors, and community members of our value. If we build these partnerships, our schools will look less like private schools and more like the church of the poor that Pope Francis imagines. Essentially, they will be worth saving.