It is no secret that Catholic Schools are in a very serious economic struggle for survival. Many are closing. In the early 1960s there were 5.2 million children in over 13,000 Catholic Schools nationwide. In 1960, in New York City alone, there were 360,000 Students in Catholic Schools. Last year, nationwide, there were just over 2 million students, and over 6,000 schools have closed since 1970. The number continues to drop steeply.  Only bold and creative initiatives can save what we currently have, and instill a hope that our schools might even grow again.
The videos at the bottom of this post show two Catholic schools that are adjusting to the realities of current times in order to survive and grow. The first video is of the Don Bosco Cristo Rey Catholic High School, here in the Archdiocese of Washington. The School is an example of a bold and relatively new approach to making Catholic Education affordable and accessible to lower income families. The second video features St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, MD. They are featuring a classics based program in an economically challenged neighborhood, not far from the University of Maryland.
It is clear that such bold and fresh attempts are going to be increasingly necessary if Catholic Education is going to be available to more than just the upper economic classes.
There have been a number of trends which have negatively affected Catholic Schools in recent decades, ans these trends have both driven up costs and limited the number of those who can afford Catholic Schools:
- The decline in religious vocations of orders that traditionally staffed our schools. While it is true we could never (in justice) pay these orders the pennies to teach we once did, it remains true that the large numbers of religious that filled convents and priories created economies of scale that once permitted these orders to provide qualities teachers, in large numbers, at remarkably low costs. For, these religious were not raising families or owning homes. Their personal expenses were limited by a communal and simple life. Today, not only are there fewer numbers, but those who remain able to teach are having to support large numbers of retired religious, and it is simply not possible for them to receive the small salaries of the past.
- Hence the cost savings of the past, provided by ample and generous service by Religious Orders is largely gone. Lay people have taken their place, who, for obvious reasons need larger salaries and benefits in order to be able to afford to work in our schools. Those Religious who remain, also require substantial salaries for the reasons explained.
- Education itself costs more. In the past basic implements such as books, desks and chalkboards sufficed. Today innumerable other things and personnel are needed: computers, up to date software, Prometheus boards, physical education equipment, school counselors, nurses, special education experts, testing materials and compliance related expenses to meet accreditation standards, foreign language curricula to stay competitive, science labs, music programs, and so forth. The days of the three “Rs” are gone, and have been replaced by the days of the multivariate alphabet soup of modern education. Get out your check books.
- Buildings are aging. From the early 1900s through the early 1960s the Catholic Church built and built: schools, churches, convents, hospitals, orphanages, rectories, seminaries and on and on. These buildings have aged. The youngest of the buildings, from the building boom age, are 50 years old, most older. In the just the last two years I have spent almost $200,000 on my 1925 school building, in repairs and necessary renovations. That’s more than it cost to build it back in 1925. My parish is but one example. Other parishes have worse stories to tell. The cost of asbestos abatement 15 years ago utterly devastated many Catholic Parishes. Buildings, what a blessing, what a burden. Get out your check books!
- Birthrates have dropped in Catholic families. The number of Catholics coming to Mass has declined to 27%. And, though the number of people who say the are Catholic has increased from the 1950s, the actual number in our pews and schools has sharply decreased. The resulting fact is that there are just less children knocking on the door.
- As costs go up, attendance decreases. Overhead is shared by fewer people. Economies of scale are lost. Schools begin to loose critical mass and the finances become downright impossible. Usually, after years of hemorrhaging money, they close. But before they close, get out your check books.
- Simply the fact that the Catholic Faith was taught in our schools was once enough reason for most parents to send their kids. But this is no longer the case. Surveys have shown for several decades that the teaching of the Catholic faith has dropped to 3 0r 4 on the list of why Catholics send their kids to our schools. Quality education and safe environment rank ahead. Frankly, handing on the faith is less important to many parents today than it once was. Further, many question whether we effectively teach the faith in our schools.
And so it is, we have become stuck in a cycle of increasing cost and tuition, declining attendance and an increasingly skewed state, wherein only the wealthy and upper middle class can afford Catholic Catholic education.
But, of course, running private schools isn’t really our fundamental mission.
Catholic schools in this country were originally founded to assure that the Catholic faith was handed on to Catholic children, and that they be protected from the largely Protestant influenced public schools. I DID attend public school and, as late as the late 1960s, we still read from the King James Bible and prayed the Protestant Lord’s Prayer every morning along with the pledge, all this done by the Principal over the school intercom. There were still, even at that late date, things in our history books that were blatantly anti-Catholic: (e.g. that the Puritans can to seek religious freedom from, among other scandalous things “popery”). Hence, the Catholic Schools were founded to propagate the Catholic faith among our children. Many argue today that our schools no longer do this effectively, but that is another blog post in itself. Be that said, Catholic Schools cannot work miracles in handing on the faith if families are not reinforcing the faith at home.
Another mission of the Catholic Schools has been social justice. Many students who could not get quality education from the state schools, found refuge and quality in Catholic Schools. In the evil days of “separate but equal,” the Catholic Schools were among the first to integrate. Even prior to that, many Catholic Schools were open in African American parishes that provided quality education for the children of those parishes. In more recent years, as the State-run schools, especially in inner cities, have become corrupt and seemingly irredeemable, Catholic Schools provided a necessary shelter from the public schools and from the nightmare that they have largely become. This is part of the social justice aspect that Catholic Schools have often provided.
But, for the reasons stated, much of this is threatened as costs go out of sight. More than ever Catholic Schools are needed. For now, it is not the Protestant influence that is the problem, it is the pagan influence that has taken hold of many state (public) schools. Likewise, as public schools continue to get worse in many cities and poorer areas, Catholic alternatives are needed as never before. But in all areas, Catholic schools are closing in large numbers and quickly.
New visions are needed if Catholic Education is to have a future as anything but elite private schools for the rich.
The Don Bosco Cristo Rey Catholic High School proposes once such model. In it the students are sponsored by local businesses. The students engage in a kind of work-study program where they attend school on a scholarship from the business, and then work part time for that business in return. Thus, not only do they get a quality Catholic Education, but they also gain valuable work experience, and start their resume early. The school serves low income families. This year the 100% of the seniors have been accepted by colleges.
Clearly this model depends on a lot of connections to the local business community to work and may not be easily replicated on a large scale. But it IS one model. If we are going to keep Catholic education available, both as a matter of the faith and of social justice, we are going to have to work hard and be very creative to keep it affordable. The Don Bosco Cristo Rey School is a great example of that ingenuity and creativity necessary.
Other models will need to be tried as well, models that include niche marketing. Until recently Catholic Schools were largely all cut from the same cloth. In other words, they are almost all the same. But there may also be need to provide a variety of packages to the community to be sure our schools stand out. Perhaps some schools can become single-sex campuses. Others can focus on math, science, languages or the arts. Still others can do a “back to basics, no-frills” curriculum. Others, such as St. Jerome Academy, the second video in this post, can offer a basis in classical education. In so doing these schools can broaden their appeal beyond the physical boundaries of the parish, and reach into the wider community. Some schools can also consider trying to connect with the home school movement so popular among many Catholic families today.
But it is clear that Catholic Schools are going to have to adapt to a very different economic reality if they hope to survive. They are also going to have to choose careful niches in order to attract students. Simply the fact of handing on the faith to children was once enough reason to fill Catholic Schools. Today, (sadly), that is not enough. More is needed to attract students. And creative economic solutions are necessary to keep the doors open to lower income families.
What are your thoughts? Why are Catholic Schools closing? What can be done to save them? What bold and creative initiatives have you seen?