Welcome Back to School!

To our students, dedicated teachers, wonderful staffs and volunteers — welcome back to school!

To our pastors, principals, parents, parishioners and generous patrons, thank you for your passion for Catholic schools!

More than ever am I convinced of the irreplaceable value of our Catholic schools.  From a purely academic point of view, they educate far better than our government schools, with test scores higher and graduation rates near 100%.  That’s why they’re particularly prized in our urban areas, where they offer the best opportunity for our kids — Catholic or not — to receive a first-rate education.

Then there’s that intangible element we might call “environment”: an atmosphere of faith, prayer, discipline, respect, order, virtue, safety, with the presence of Jesus — the One called “Teacher,” “Rabbi,” and “Master” by His students, His disciples — everywhere.

These first two values of our Catholic schools — academics and atmosphere — produce tremendous benefits for our community.  Social scientists tell us that alumni of Catholic schools overwhelmingly go on to college, land better jobs, enter enduring marriages with united families, and take leadership roles in society.  Not bad!  It seems that if you want to reduce unemployment, poverty, broken families, violence, drugs, and crime, you support Catholic schools!

And then there’s the benefit to the Church:  studies by CARA, Pew Center, NORC, Notre Dame, and NCEA show that alumni of Catholic grade schools, high schools, and colleges pray better and more often; know, accept, and practice the teachings of the faith better; are more committed to pro-life and social justice causes; are more likely to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life; support the Church more generously; volunteer more often; are more faithful to Sunday Mass; and have happier marriages.  Not bad!

Now, believe me, I know our schools are far from perfect, and we cannot loaf.  We have problems galore, most of them addressed by the new strategic plan for our schools, Pathways to Excellence: towering cost, declining enrollments, recruitment and retention of top-notch principals and teachers, curriculum and facilities improvement, better marketing, new governance structure … the list goes on.  Catholic schools require grit, sweat, tears, hard work, and sacrifice, and can cause heartburn and headaches.

But, bottom line:  they are well-worth it.

Funny enough, the wider community needs no convincing of the soaring value of Catholic schools.  We have an impressive array of business, civic, political, and philanthropic leaders, Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Jewish, agnostic, and even some atheists who are passionately committed to our schools.  Even The New York Times compliments them!

But, I fear a loss of nerve within our Catholic community!

Within the Church I see hand-wringing about the cost, the loss of Catholic identity, the fact that the students and parents don’t show-up at Sunday Mass, and the charge that our commitment to our schools lessens our zeal for other urgent pastoral causes, especially religious education of our children and youth not in our schools.

Yet, the same studies cited above show that it is not an “either-or,” but a “both-and,” since strong Catholic schools bolster all other Church initiatives, while their disappearance diminishes overall Catholic vitality.

I fear as well an attitude that the support of our Catholic schools is only the duty of the parents who have children there.  In this view, a parish without a school has no obligation at all to support other Catholic schools, and a parish blessed with a school might offer a “subsidy” to the school, but shifts the major burden of upkeep to the “school families,” who then are looked upon as “drains” on the rest of the parish.

Such a view, of course, is, simply put, “non-catholic.”  As our tradition, Church teaching, canon law, and cherished Catholic practice reminds us, support of Catholic schools is a duty of the entire Church, even if you may not have a child now in one, or belong to a parish without one.

Finally, I fear a subtle buy-in into what I call the hospice mentality.  Some bishops, priests, pastoral leaders, and Catholic faithful now sigh and say, “Well, we sure love our schools, and they have served us well, but, sadly, their day is over, and twilight is here.  So, the best we can do is make their passing comfortable, and hold their hand while they slowly pass into grateful memory.”

Malarkey!  We need to move from hospice to hope.

And we can’t do business as usual.  To stand back and watch our schools struggle and scrape will only result in an “academic Darwinism” — where only the few fit survive — and a slow shrinking and gradual disappearance.

So, what do we do?  We do what those before us have done.  We renew passion, face reality, and boldly plan for the future.  We recover our dare and quit whining.

Pathways to Excellence calls for ongoing improvement internally, with realistic attention to quality teachers and principals, improvement of math and science scores, reassertion of Catholic identity, and aggressive marketing.

And it offers solid hope for future financial support.

Yes, some of our schools will have to merge or even close in the future.  I wish there were a way around it.  If the vine is to grow it must be pruned.  Two-or-three struggling schools can combine into one strong one, becoming regional.  This process requires wide consultation, constant communication, and careful collaboration.  If we do not consolidate some of our schools into regions, all will suffer.  If we prudently come together, all will be helped.  New ones can open; others can be expanded.

Two, while the classic model of a parish school should still remain the norm, we must admit that the days of expecting a parish by itself to support its school are coming to an end.  So, all parishes help, and the archdiocese continues its effective financial support — made so strong by Cardinal Egan — for our schools.  Parishes selling or leasing former convents or schools have an obligation in justice to see that this income is used as the original donors intended:  to support Catholic schools.

And new models of governance, such as regional schools, where two-or-three neighboring schools, all struggling, come together into one strong center, collaboratively governed by a board of the parishes’ pastors and faithful, must be encouraged.

None of this is new.  Our Catholic schools have had to scrape and fight from the very beginning, since, sadly and unjustly, the high taxes our parents pay for education cannot follow their children to the school of their choice, even if that school educates twice-as-well at half-the-price.  One of the big reasons we are so strong is because our schools have never been on easy street, and have had to show amazing grit and determination.

So, although I’ve enumerated some fears, I’m not afraid.  We’ve been through this before.  We reclaim our communal obligation to support our schools, even when our own parish might not have one, or when our family might not have children now in them.  We move from hospice to hope, putting an end to that subtle temptation to assume our schools are slowly dying, that it’s just a matter of time.  We stop the turf battles, charging unfairly that support of our schools chokes other pastoral programs, or, the opposite, expecting all parish income only to go to the school.  And we get real, admitting that we have some rough decisions about consolidating and even closing, thus making the rest even stronger.

Just remember:  it’s all worth it!

Welcome back to school!


6 Responses to “Welcome Back to School!”

  1. LeAnn Rogan says:

    Making good schools great and great schools even better requires humility and leadership. May our school communities stop ‘saying they’re better’ than their public counterparts and actually start ‘being better’. Roll up your sleeves everyone and do the work of servant-leaders!

  2. Anne says:

    I homeschool my children and also support my parish Catholic school financially. Hats off to all homeschool families who live on one income, buy all books and materials out of pocket, and dedicate their lives to raising faithful followers of Jesus Christ. There is no real support out there for us, but we are paid back a thousand fold when we see our adult children practicing their faith seriously, giving back to the community as they practice their professions, and raise beautiful families of their own.

  3. Nilda Gonzalez says:

    Sad 2 say I’ve had the worse start 2 my daughters Senior. She attended St. Jeans for 3 yrs & due 2 a medical condition was not allowed 2 finish her senior yr in a School where she worked hard 2 accomplish so much & made great friends. Now finding a HS that accepts seniors has been a mothers worse nightmare.
    Talk about a great start 2 School :/

  4. Irene says:

    I agree that we have a communal obligation to support our schools. I think that obligation also extends to poor parishes (without schools) that struggle to make ends meet. I try to send something to two of my former parishes that are now low-income; but I think we need to figure out as a community how we can help these poor parishes pay the fuel bills and keep the doors open.

  5. Kate says:

    Wonderful article, Archbishop! Catholic schools are close to my heart, and I’m doing my best (along with so many others) to support, promote, maintain, and better our schools. This post is very helpful — thank you!

  6. AndyP/Doria2 says:

    THIS, is the subject that I must admit makes me the sometimes angry Catholic the you all witness in these forums.

    I have three children who went to 12 years of Catholic school and graduated young Catholic Eunuchs. I though I was getting help with their Catholic Education and I was NOT.

    My anger is magnified towards myself because I didn’t notice it. Not until they approached college level did one of them ask me why the Eucharist in the person of God was not stressed over and over again they way I did and that they felt it was “sorta symbolic.”

    All this talk about how many kids pass grades and go on to college was absolutely useless if they graduate with very little knowledge of the faith.

    Recent studies have shown that the higher a young Catholic goes in Catholic education the more they are apt to lose their faith completely.

    IMO, this should be priority one. EVERYthing else comes in a disatant second.