Catholic Schools Reinventing Themselves

Article excerpt

The numbers are familiar and the story has become routine. The number of Catholic schools in the United States and the number of students enrolled in those schools are in decline.

This time of year, especially, as parish councils, school boards and diocesan offices begin planning for the next academic year, the announcements of school closings become almost routine. And no matter where they are closing--Dubuque, Pittsburgh, Miami or Baltimore--the reasons cited are nearly uniform: declining populations in older urban areas, dwindling parish membership and tuition increases that put the cost of a Catholic education out of reach of low- and moderate-income families.

Throw into that mix the two years of economic downturn and you have what Jesuit Fr. Joseph O'Keefe calls "a perfect storm" of bad times for Catholic schools.

U.S. Catholic school enrollment reached its peak during the early 1960s when there were more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 schools across the nation, according to statistics from the National Catholic Education Association. The 1970s and 1980s saw a steep decline in both the number of schools and students. By 1990, there were approximately 2.5 million students in 8,719.schools.

Hope emerged in the mid-1990s when, although schools kept closing, enrollment across the national network of Catholic schools saw steady, albeit small increases. However, from 2000 until now school closings continued and enrollment declined by 17 percent. The most seriously affected have been elementary schools.

This is tough time to be in Catholic education, said O'Keefe, dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. "Sometimes I get very discouraged." School closings are sad and heartbreaking, he said. "It's a dying process and it's hard."

He has great empathy for pastors and bishops who often bear the brunt of parents' anger when a school is closed. Bishops and pastors aren't heartless, O'Keefe said. "The fact is, they don't have the resources to [keep all schools open]."

O'Keefe isn't predicting the end of the Catholic educational system in the United States, but he also says, "It can't be business as usual. ... It's a reinvention, a reinventing of the whole system. That's really what it will take."

This time of reinvention is also a period of experimentation. Many models of new Catholic schools are being tried.

"The structures of schools that are emerging are very different from the traditional parish structure," O'Keefe said. He cites as an example a project he is working on with the Boston archdiocese. Three parish schools are being closed in two towns, Lawrence and Quincy Mass., and next fall, one new school will emerge--one school that can draw on the resources of three parishes.

That is a trend O'Keefe sees increasing, even in areas where Catholic populations are growing. "They'll no longer be parish schools, but they'll be Catholic schools, part of a diocesan system," he said.

Charter schools

One alternative model emerging is to convert Catholic schools to charter schools. Charter schools are private schools that can use public money to educate students. Under this model, schools would shed their "explicit religious identity" but maintain a "Catholic philosophy"

Seton Education Partners ( is dedicated to preserving urban Catholic schools, which it describes as "a national treasure." Among the resources the organization has available is a series of reports called "Catholic Schools Become Charter Schools," which can guide church leaders and Catholic educators exploring the charter school idea.

One of the most promising "Catholic" charter school experiments was in the Washington archdiocese. A story in The Washington Post earlier this year described it: "In 2008, the archdiocese of Washington gave up control of seven of its financially struggling inner-city schools, stripping down crucifixes and turning the facilities into secular charter schools in three months. …