Sunday, February 12, 2006

The future of Catholic education

We’re dying a slow death because we are stuck in the wrong paradigm.

“A school in every parish” was the guiding principle of Catholic education since the Baltimore Councils of the late 1800’s, so much so that when new parishes were built, the school was often built first and the parishioners worshipped in the school’s gym until the parish could afford to build the Church. This, coupled with the heroic service of the nuns, helped parochial schools thrive over the last century.

Yet parochial education is not sustainable, except in the most affluent parishes. There is no need to labor this argument; despite the good intentions and hard work of all those concerned, we’ve closed hundreds of Catholic schools over the last ten years. For those of us who work in Catholic schools, our instinctive response to this grim news is to work even harder: If we’re more thoroughly Catholic, we tell ourselves, maybe we can attract back some of the home school families who left. If we improve our academic program (AP classes, band, improved fine arts) we might be able to stop families leaving us for the local private schools. If we upgrade our facilities, spend more money on advertising or improve our athletic program, perhaps we could persuade new families to join us.

I applaud these efforts, but the fact is, upgraded academic programs, more advertising and new facilities require the one thing neither our schools nor parishes have: more money. If we truly want to truly stem the tide of school closings, we must look squarely at the reasons for our demise, all of which argue for a new paradigm:

1) Our faculties have changed from nuns to lay teachers, which has increased our expenses considerably. When we paid the nuns almost nothing, we were the cheapest game in town, but now we must compete head to head for teachers and students, often against schools wealthier than ours.

2) Because of demographic changes over the last thirty years, many of our schools are now in the “wrong place” to sustain the allegiance of middle class Catholics.

3) Competition has increased dramatically. We’ve got magnet schools, charter schools, large private schools, small Christian academies, and everything in between. In Montgomery, AL where I live, a city of just over 200,000, we have over 30 private schools!

4) Our cultural values have changed. Social class now defines us more than our faith. The once important goal of Catholic parents to raise their children in the faith as THE reason to send kids to our schools simply doesn’t rank as highly with many of our families. Often what families want from a “faith-based” schools amounts to simply good manners. Manners can be taught just as well, perhaps even better, at elite privates or evangelical Christian schools, which typically don't minister to as diverse a student body.

5) Finally, the traditional configuration of our schools into K-8 elementary schools (usually located on parish grounds) and 9-12 high schools (somewhere else) isn’t a competitive model versus the K-12 private school. K-8 schools are rarely able to offer its students a true middle school program, with a separate schedule, structure and administration that targets the needs of young adolescents. As a result, older students in K-8 schools usually feel “babied”. Furthermore, without sharing space with the high school, we usually can’t give these students access to first-rate athletic facilities, music programs, libraries, or well equipped science labs.

So, however happy our first and second grade parents are with us early on, dissatisfaction grows as their children get older and our K-8 schools seem to offer less and less in comparison to the K-12 privates. If they leave in elementary school (we were losing many families around grade five), they’re not likely coming back. And if they DO stay through 8th grade, since the Catholic high school is perceived as a “new school decision”, the high school cannot reliably assume that the 8th graders are coming their way. As much as 25-50% of graduating 8th grade students from K-8 elementaries may attend high school in a different system.

So these are the causes of our problems. If parochial education cannot adequately address them, what do I propose as a more viable paradigm?

In my judgment, we must regionalize our schools.

I don't mean regionalization as a euphemism for “shutting down several schools and re-routing those students to a central, healthier school”. That's inevitably what happens when we don't plan together. Rather, I mean that we create structures which begin to evolve our schools toward a common purpose and identity and which may eventually allow our schools to pool resources. Generally speaking, the schools becoming regionalized remain viable, though under a common leadership structure.

To explain further, let me explain what my school, Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School in Montgomery, AL , has done over the last ten years in an effort to regionalize.

Montgomery Al is only 5% Catholic; the majority is evangelical Christian. In the early 1990’s, there were four K-8 Catholic elementary schools and two small high schools, all operating independently. Though none of us were in dire straits, neither were we filled to capacity, and the increasing number of public magnet schools and new Christian schools around town portended poorly.

Recognizing the difficulty of maintaining competitive programs as independent institutions, our previous high school president, Dr. Tom Doyle, invited the pastors, principals and Board leadership of each school to a meeting to discuss a simple idea: Would they be interested in the formation of a single Board to set policies of mutual benefit for our schools? Each school would still maintain their local boards, maintain their own financial office and set their own internal policies. This joint Board would only have jurisdiction on matters external to any one school. After discussing the idea with their local communities over the next two months, Queen of Mercy elementary, St. Bede elementary and Catholic High joined together and formed the “Unified Board”. The other three schools decided not to join.

The first task of the Unified Board was to study the strengths and weaknesses of our current three schools and decide where we needed to target our efforts. Overwhelmingly, parents identified the weak link of our existing program as the seventh and eighth grades. After a year of discussion, the Board set the goal of creating a middle school program by restructuring our K-8 elementary schools into K-6 schools, building a new middle school on the high school campus, and opening this middle school with the 7th and 8th graders from the elementary campuses. The intent was to share facilities with the high school, even while creating a unique program for the middle schoolers. In 1996, the Unified Board approved a multi-phased capital development plan to make this happen, and after adding a new library and science labs in 1998 (phase I), improving athletic facilities and increasing parking in 2002 (phase II), we were able to open a new middle school in the fall of 2004 (Phase III, dedicated to Dr. Doyle, see plaque above).

Much earlier than this opening, however, our three schools, now under the Unified Board, were allowed by the Alabama High School Athletic Association to combine the 7th and 8th graders from the two elementary schools with the high school athletic program. We created middle school football, volleyball, basketball and cheerleading teams--all part of the “Catholic Knights” sports program, with all teams playing their games inside the high school football stadium and gym. Elementary children were given free passes to Catholic High sporting events, as long as they attended with their (paying!) parents. It would be impossible to overstate how important the combined athletic program was in getting each of our once separated communities to begin to see themselves as "one school". The middle school students wore “Catholic” sports wear, middle school cheerleaders led pep rallies in the elementary schools, the parents placed “Catholic Knights” stickers on their cars, elementary parents attended high school Booster Club meetings, and attendance at even the varsity games increased. The "they" slowly became the "we".

These moves toward regionalization were so evidently successful in terms of enrollment and parental satisfaction that the idea of regionalization gained momentum, such that the scope and authority of the Unified Board increased from its original charter, with each step in its development agreed upon by the local school boards and ratified by our bishop and local pastors:
In 2002, the Unified Board voted to make our three independent schools into one K-12 school, renaming us “Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School” with “campuses” at the high school and elementary schools. Though I was previously only the president of the high school, the Board named me president of the K-12 school. Shortly thereafter, I was able to hire a development director to serve our school. In what will complete the regionalization, next year the Unified Board will become the only policy making institution for our school, and the local campus boards will become “advisory committees” for the campus principals. Next year will also be the first year we run all campuses from a single business office, and that will allow us to do something else our parents appreciate: give them multi-child discounts, regardless of which campus of Montgomery Catholic their children attend.

The results of these moves have been very encouraging. Each of the original schools which formed together in the mid-1990’s is doing well. Overall K-12 enrollment has increased by 14% in the last two years. The new middle school is so highly regarded, it's adding an average of 30-35 new students per class from outside our system. This, in turn, is driving up enrollments at the high school, which now collects nearly 100% of the 8th graders, since 9th grade is no longer perceived as a "new school decision". High school enrollments have gone from 255 in 2004 to a projected 310 for 2006. The K-6 elementary schools are able to focus their energies on a smaller range of students, and parental satisfaction there is improving, as indicated by the need to add a 3rd kindergarten this fall. Pooling resources between the campus schools has allowed us to professionalize our advertising, add athletic teams, create a band program and improve our outreach to parishes. We’ve been able to launch an aggressive financial aid program that has allowed us to raise tuitions, even while continuing to provide for the families least able to afford these increases.

We can do these things because we're now a school of 800, rather than separate schools of 250 or less. Most K-8 schools on their own cannot afford presidents to do long range planning, or development directors to do advertising, band directors to run music programs, or athletic directors to direct teams. Most K-8 schools cannot offer their families first rate science labs, or football and baseball stadiums, or up to date computer labs. But as a larger K-12 institution, we can offer those things to our families without tuition costs soaring.

In summary, regionalization is the key to our future in Catholic schools. Our experience suggests that three keys toward regionalization are: 1) The creation of a common board 2) The establishment of a 7-12 athletic program, and 3) The movement away from a K-8, 9-12 model, to an elementary, middle school and high school model. The common middle school, combining together the 7th and 8th grades from area parochial elementaries (or 6th-8), provides the "bridge" that weds the families and institutions together. Once those three things are established, it may then be possible to evolve local boards toward a single, common board and a single financial office.

In any case, it's worked for us. I believe clinging to the parochial model guarantees we will continue to close Catholic schools in a kind of Darwinian evolution , with only our wealthiest parish schools surviving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a Montgomery resident I have seen first hand the effect of the combined school system's new outreach in the community. There is a new "buzz" about Catholic School in town - and it is all positive. Job well done! As a former Catholic High parent I'm very glad to see this additional outreach and to see the school get the recognition they so richly deserve!