Urban Catholic Elementary Schools: What Are the Governance Models?

By Goldschmidt, Erik P.; Walsh, Mary E. | Catholic Education, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Urban Catholic Elementary Schools: What Are the Governance Models?


Goldschmidt, Erik P., Walsh, Mary E., Catholic Education


In 1884, the American Catholic Bishops obligated all pastors to establish a parish school (Fanning, 1907). Catholic schools reached their peak enrollment in 1965, when 5.6 million students attended nearly 13,500 Catholic schools hosted by more than half of the Catholic parishes across the country (McDonald & Schultz, 2013). The numbers look quite different in 2013, with 2 million students attending 6,685 Catholic schools (McDonald & Schultz, 2013). These numbers represent a 63% enrollment decline and a 50% school closure rate since 1965. Catholic school leaders and other stakeholders have explored a variety of school governance approaches, seeking a more sustainable future for Catholic elementary schools. This study examines the various governance models that have emerged in response to the precipitous decline in Catholic schools.

A close consideration of school and enrollment data shows that elementary schools have experienced the steepest loss. (See Figures 1 and 2)

The evidence shows that Catholic elementary education is in serious decline. With approximately 40% of Catholic elementary schools in the United States located in urban areas (McDonald & Schultz, 2013), and considering the growing challenges of sustaining schools in low-income communities, this study focuses primarily on urban Catholic elementary schools.

In response to the school closing crisis, numerous symposia, studies, academic conferences, philanthropic initiatives, and strategic planning consultations have focused on developing more sustainable approaches for urban Catholic schools (Blue Ribbon Committee on Catholic Schools, 2010; Curtin, Haney, & O'Keefe, 2009; FADICA, 2012; Hamilton, 2008; Meitler Consultants, Inc., 2007; Saroki & Levinick, 2009). Efforts to stabilize vulnerable schools or systems of schools have typically involved a cost-benefit analysis of the traditional parish school governance model (DeFiore, Convey, & Schuttloffel, 2009). A growing concern is that the parish school model, which worked for Catholic schools in the past, may not be sustainable in the future.

As institutions of the Catholic Church, Catholic schools are governed in accordance with both civil law and canon law (Haney, O'Brien, & Sheehan, 2009). The term "governance" refers to the articulation of mission, policy development and enforcement, operational priorities, hiring procedures, evaluation processes, and reporting structures (Brown, 2010). The governance model establishes the framework within which administrators manage the operations of the schools.

While most urban Catholic schools continue to be governed by traditional structures under a local parish, a variety of alternative approaches have emerged. Faced with imminent closures, many school and diocesan leaders have developed an array of changes in governance; however, leaders looking to explore new governance approaches are often challenged by a lack of knowledge about the variety of governance models in use across the country.

This study aims to catalogue some recent innovative efforts to sustain Catholic schools by describing governance models utilized by urban Catholic elementary schools across the United States. This inquiry was part of a larger study that also examined funding strategies (Goldschmidt & Walsh, 2012). The study presents approaches that have been implemented (rather than simply proposed), highlighting examples of urban schools where available. After a detailed description of the common governance models, we identify themes that cut across the models. The article concludes with several recommendations for school and diocesan leaders considering a strategic exploration of effective school governance.

Methodology

The set of governance models presented in this study was identified by: (a) compiling the models described in relevant literature, and (b) contacting key informants experienced with innovative approaches to governance. …

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