28 July 2010

The Picture Tells a Story: Catholic Schools Struggle

Photo by Stephanie Cordle of the P-D

There is a report in today's Post-Dispatch about the current struggles of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis.  This phenomenon is common to most Archdioceses, and the causes are many.  In other words, I don't want to single out this Archdiocese, nor do I want to oversimplify the problems.

But, though the title of the article is "Catholic Schools Struggle in Economy", I can't help taking note of the above photo, which accompanied the P-D story.  It depicts a young girl in a classroom at Central Catholic School, which is located downtown.  Perhaps the picture gives a micro-window into one reason why Catholic schools are in some difficulties. 

The cross on the wall is devoid of the Corpus of Our Lord.  Surely the cross is a Christian symbol, but not a uniquely Catholic one.  The Crucifix is (though used by some non-Catholic groups) a clear marker of Catholic identity, and moreover is not a mere sign, but a sacramental.

And the girl pictured in the photo, while not immodestly dressed according to what passes for modesty today, is not exactly wearing what would have traditionally been expected in a Catholic classroom--even apart from any uniform requirement.  Before I get hate mail, I understand it is summertime, and I also do not fault the girl for the outfit, as I don't know the circumstances of her family's finances, background, knowledge base, etc.  In short, I am not focusing on the girl here but on the dress code of a Catholic school.

But these are mere externals, yes?  Externals, yes, but some externals are not "merely" so. 

There have been hard economic times in the past.  Though our current difficulties may exceed the hardships of the great depression, they don't yet.  But the rise of the Catholic school movement in this country--an organic push to offset the protestantism of the compulsory government schools-- occurred among people who were by and large not well off, and at times when hardship and sacrifice were common.  Among other reasons, they were founded to ensure the Catholic identity of our children and to assist in the passing down of our faith.

The disappearance of the low-cost, well-educated religious order teachers is a major factor.  But while most focus on the loss of the low-cost angle, I most lament the loss of the well-educated--or should I say, theologically well-formed-- angle.  Our Catholic teachers, mostly sisters and brothers, were theologically qualified and dedicated to imparting the Catholic faith.  Today's Catholic teachers, well-meaning and dedicated as they are, are co-victims of the Catechetical disaster in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and are passing along the same faith they received.  Which is to say not enough, Catholic-wise.  The sad fact is that Catholic schools, by and large, teach "tolerance" instead of the Catholic faith; they practice "spirituality" instead of the Catholic religion.

Catholic families aren't living Catholic lifestyles (and in particular are contracepting at nearly the same rate as their non-Catholic neighbors), and their faith is not being improved by what they get at most parishes.  In short, if the three pillars of 19th and 20th Century Catholic life in America were faith-filled homes, faithful parishes, and high-quality Catholic schools, then I would say that all three pillars have crumbled.  There is still life in all three, but on various forms of life support.

So, back to the article:  yes, times are tough.  Schools are feeling budgetary pressures.  But I submit that for a Catholic school to compete and succeed in these times the ONLY thing that will justify the expense and hardship is that it BE Catholic.  I don't care if a purportedly Catholic school has a nifty computer room, or shiny new textbooks, or the latest pedagogical fad imported from the NEA.  I do care if it teaches the Catholic faith. 

Simple math-- Which is a better value?  Having a public school impart secular values contrary to my wishes for $0, or having a supposedly Catholic school impart secular values contrary to my wishes for (at least) $4,000?

From the full article at STLToday:

Catholic Schools Struggle in Economy

by Sara Sonne Lenz

[The article begins by cataloging some specific examples of tough times at some area Catholic schools]

...These difficulties are not isolated.

Catholic schools around the nation are shrinking in number, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. While 24 schools opened nationwide last year, 174 closed or consolidated. Over the last decade, enrollment rates have decreased 20 percent, said Karen Ristau, president of the association.

One bright spot has been the city of St. Louis, where after 40 years of steady decline, Catholic school enrollment saw a slight increase in 2008 and maintained that gain last year.

Overall, however, Catholic school enrollment in the 11 counties under the Archdiocese of St. Louis has dropped by 11,000 in the past 10 years. Enrollment in the Belleville Diocese has dropped by 10,000.

Most parish schools must survive on their own through tuition, Sunday collections and fundraising, said Al Winklemann, associate superintendent at the archdiocese for elementary school administration. He said the archdiocese steps up when parents or the parish can't afford to keep some schools open. Last year, the archdiocese gave $1.8 million in aid and this year that will grow to $2 million.

"It's always been a challenge to maintain Catholic schools," Winklemann said, adding that the cost of education has continued to rise as the economy has become more challenging. "I think all schools have felt that impact."


But the economy is only part of the issue, said Thomas Posnanski, director of education for the Belleville Diocese.

Shrinking family sizes have caused a large enrollment drop in Catholic schools. Posnanski said he comes from a family of 12. He subsequently had five children, and his children have three kids each.

"The number of families having a smaller number of kids has had a direct impact on the number of kids enrolling," he said. More than 60 percent of the families enrolled in schools in the Belleville Diocese have just one child, he said.

Catholics also are choosing parish schools less frequently, Ristau said.

"Catholics are not as strongly attached to the church as much as they might have been in the past," she said. "They don't go to Mass as much as they did 30 years ago."

Indeed, Catholic researchers at Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate report that while 24 percent of Catholics born from 1943 to 1960 attend Mass at least once a week, 17 percent of those born after 1981 attend weekly Mass.




The Rev. Bill Vatterott, pastor of St. Cecilia, said 78 of the school's 109 families receive some type of financial aid.

"The Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation has really brought life not just to the school but to the neighborhood," Vatterott said. "It has allowed parents to provide their kids with a good, solid foundation that will change their lives and the lives of their kids and grandkids."

One consequence of the foundation's shift in mission is that Catholic schools in the city are serving fewer Catholic students. St. Cecilia's student body is 70 percent Catholic; the national average is 85.5 percent. The Belleville Diocese's average is 95 percent.

Sharon Gerken, executive director of the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, said a few parish schools in north St. Louis have no Catholic pupils.

"We still teach religion and prayer," Winklemann said. "The fact that we have large numbers of non-Catholics in our schools does not change the program in any way, shape or form."



Anonymous said...

Wow, lots to say here.

First, my family has tried Catholic education, and left the system, for two reasons: (A) generally speaking*, Catholic elementary schools aren't particularly academic, and (B) generally speaking*, Catholic elementary schools aren't particularly Catholic.

(* - Yes, I'm sure there are exceptions, although we haven't been able to find any.)

It wouldn't take both Catholicity and academic rigor to get us to send our kids back to Catholic schools - - either/or would be fine.

So, we send our kids to public schools, and "homeschool" the Catholic faith.

Y'know, it's funny, years ago, the Catholic school ideal was to be so good academically that they became a means of spreading the faith to non-Catholics, because the schools were so good that non-Catholics would sometimes find them to be a better choice for their children "despite" their Catholicness. We have come far afield from those days.

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear All,

I work sometimes at a soup kitchen run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity on North Grand. That's the order popularly known as "Mother Teresa of Calcutta's order.

The nuns have a dress code posted outside the dining room. No one wearing tank tops, halter tops or shorts an inch above the knee can enter. In their Sunday school they unapolgetically teach the rosary and in their Summer camp they lead their mostly protestant and african american charges in the rosary on the way to swimming.

Unapologetic Catholicism is very attractive. I've never heard of a parent telling the sisters "Oh, please take and educate my child but don't say anything about The Virgin Mary because we're of a different religious tradition."

Doesn't happen. If you just pour on the regular, traditional stuff without hesitancy you'd be surprised how well it's received.

st. guy

Anonymous said...

Before I would pass judgement on the clothing choice of the girl in this picture, I'd ask one simple question: Is that school air-conditioned?

Our parish Catholic school (which closed a few years ago) wasn't, and there's no way a kid wearing a traditional uniform would be able to stand the 100+ heat indexes we've been seeing in the past few weeks.

Even in September, our kids had to be wrung out at the end of the school day, they were sweating so badly.

Anonymous said...

Anon 16:06:

I recently heard a group of well-intentioned Catholics lamenting the addition of air conditioning to Catholic schools as being the cause of the rising cost of Catholic education and a particularly poor tactic in order to keep up with the public schools.

I thought that opinion was unfortunately trapped in the past, and kind of missed the point: to some extent, the Catholic schools must compete with the public schools, just as a matter of economic necessity - - Catholic schools are expensive as compared to the "free" public schools, and in a climate like St. Louis, A/C is not a trivial geegaw.

Unfortunately, we are past the point, for a variety of societally-inflicted and self-inflicted reasons, where Catholic parents are or should be guilted into sending their kids to Catholic schools. Catholic schools, if they are to survive, have to find some way to make themselves relevant. I'm pretty sure that refusing to add A/C is going the opposite direction, at least in STL.

Anyway, this isn't directly relevant to your post, but it brought this point to mind.

thetimman said...

Anonymous at 16:06:

As I said in the post, I don't pass judgment on the girl's clothing choice at all.

Anonymous said...

St. Guy,

The capitalization in your post adhered to standard edited English, except, of course, when you mentioned people who happened to be Prtoestant and African American. Funny how those two things didn't manage to get capitalized. Maybe it was just an oversight. Hope so, anyway.

And no, my point has nothing to do with being PC -- rather, it's about showing respect for people.

Anonymous said...

St. Guy,
How does one become involved with the sisters' soup kitchen? Is there a website that offers info?


just wondering said...

i'm wondering why there is no corpus on the cross behind the girl. that could have a teeny bit to do with the "struggle", dont you think? i was just wondering.

Patrick Kinsale said...

The growth of homeschooling and private Catholic schools has provided an alternative for parish schools, many of which eschew orthodoxy. Unfortunately, there are few private Catholic school alternatives here in STL for those for whom homeschooling is not an option. NAPCIS, the national organization for small private schools, has no members in this area. We desperately need alternatives.

bobw45 said...

For the most part, Timman, I think you are "right on." I can especially agree with your statement, "But while most focus on the loss of the low-cost angle, I most lament the loss of the well-educated--or should I say, theologically well-formed-- angle. Our Catholic teachers, mostly sisters and brothers, were theologically qualified and dedicated to imparting the Catholic faith. Today's Catholic teachers, well-meaning and dedicated as they are, are co-victims of the Catechetical disaster in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and are passing along the same faith they received."

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear Anon 7/28/10 17:27,

Thanks for the correction as to capitalization. I've had it in my head for some years that that "Protestant" and "African American" (or "French" or "German" for that matter) when used as adjectives are lower case.

After looking at the Purdue website apparently you are right.

I meant no disrespect to Protestants or "African Americans."

Thanks for the correction.



StGuyFawkes said...


E-mail Tim and ask him for my e-mail address. I'll write you back and be happy to get you connected to the Missionary Sisters of Charity.

St. Guy.

Anonymous said...

That's precisely why I pulled my children out of Catholic schools: all too frequently (in our parish in particular) there are not any corpuses on the school/church crosses. Until we the people stand up and demand crosses with corpuses, more Catholic schools and parishes will close.

Anonymous said...

"nor do I want to oversimplify the problems." Really? This blog has proven over and over again that a simpleton can do nothing but oversimplfy issues.

Anonymous said...

I think she was immodestly dressed and am not afraid to say it. Why do we have to be apologetic about things like this?

Anonymous said...

St. Guy,

Sorry if I came across as self-righteous, especially in light of my own careless spelling habits.

Thanks also for the gracious nature of your response. Peace.

thetimman said...

anon at 8:50,

Some of the great saints were simpletons. I can only hope to emulate them.

You were referring to me, right?

Anonymous said...

Again, I agree!

Thank you for keeping us informed!


StGuyFawkes said...

To Anon at 9:18 7/29,

No harm no foul. Thanks for clueing me to a bad habit in capitalization.

To all,

Air conditioning IS important. The MC sisters have A/C AND they fight the tank top, and the short-shorts. Although, I gotta say, these sisters, even if they didn't have A/C would still forbid the tank top.

Here's a mall point but an important one. When you insist that girls dress modestly you free them from the mischievous attention of boys who are all too willing to poke fun of their developing bodies. Boys can be so miserable and it's a good lesson to the girls that they don't have to take it. And if you put the boys in Catholic school uniforms they all start to look just a little like Erkel and it de-eroticizes the whole enviornment.

Anonymous said...

I was in catholic grade and high school. We didn't have a/c. We wore uniforms everyday. We survived. I applaud churches and schools for turning up the air (or off) to save money for more important things. I know the point of this article wasn't to commit on the young ladies clothing, but it came up, and here is my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @20:07:

Did you go to school in July?

It's a little different than it is in September.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll ask...
Why are they in school in July?

Anonymous said...

Does that mean modesty is not applicable in July?
People should dress modestly all the time. Come on, it's not that hard!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps comments that implicitly criticize the wardrobe choices of a girl who is probably all of 13 are not the best way of saying, "Hey world, why not send your child to a Catholic school; we're a compassionate, loving group of people." I realize that Tinman said his intent was not to critique the girl herself, but is that not what this discussion has turned into?

It seems that the church has so many bigger problems to deal with than how this young girl dresses. May God bless her and her family, regardless of what month it was when this picture was taken. May they see in their local Catholic school plenty of people who reflect Christ's love, not a spirit of judgment. There are such people out there; there are even such people in the church, thank goodness.

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear Anon 7/31/10 11:12,

I read all these posts much differently than you do. Maybe it's just a matter of interpretation but in even the harshest criticisms of the dress code or lack thereof at this Catholic school, I have never sensed anyone in this blog had it in for the girl or her parents.

One can reflect God's love and still want to protect children from being sexually objectified. Anyone who has ever worked in poor neighborhoods knows that such is exactly what happens to young women. Nuns have been protecting young women by means of modesty for centuries.

As one of the MC sisters put it "wear clothing that respects God and respects yourself."

Anonymous said...

Whereas I also want to refrain from any judgment on the particular young lady featured in he picure, let's stop being such cowards about what we catholics believe in. They seem like small matters,and they may be, but the absence of the corpus from the cross, leaving a Catholic school classroom devoid of the uniquely Catholic sacramental of the Crucifix while containing the typically Protestant Cross, and classroom use of the young lady's apparel, which does fall short of Catholic standard of modesty, and such similar attitudes have all contributed to the demise of our beloved Catholic schools. For most of this, I blame the revolutionary nuns who threw our patrimony down the drain with glee some forty years ago.

Anonymous said...

Lots to say as well. As for Bville diocese:

--Anecdotally-speaking, our parish PSR is busting at the seams and the parish is sending emails begging folks to consider the parish school to educate their kids. Many of these families could afford the tuition. It's a small town. It's fairly easy to see this.
--The Bville diocesan director spoke at a meeting on school funding I attended a few years ago. He said without a blink that Catholic families are choosing smaller family sizes, worried about affording Catholic eduction etc. This was well before the current bad economic times. He did not say anything about our obligation to be open to life and not contracept.
--Populations shifts are another cause of some schools closing, while others are being built. We see it nationally with the southeast and west having growing parishes. Locally, parishes in Bville city itself are shrinking. Suburbs such as O'Fallon, Shiloh, Freeburg, Waterloo and Columbia are growing. New church buildings have been constructed or are in the planning process as we speak. These same towns are building new public schools which are much better structures with great technical capabilities above the little schools that the parishes won't vote to tear down and replace. [The tiny rural communities are shrinking as they have been for decades.]
--The weakness of the teaching of the faith these days might influence families to public/home school and teach the faith at home.
--The incidence of kids with behavioral or learning disabilities seems greater than in prior generations. Most Catholic schools are ill-equipped to deal with such problems, particularly at an affordable cost.
--Yes, I agree that the loss of dedicated women and men religious to teach at low cost to parishes is probably the biggest factor in rising Catholic education costs today.
--The girl's clothes? It is summer. It's not the most modest, but in some of those neighborhoods it could be worse.

Anonymous said...

Wow. The Belleville diocese has not much over 100,000 Catholics in this primarily rural lower third of the state--from about I-64 to IN, KY and MO borders. In contrast, STL Metro in MO is much more populous and has about half a million Catholics (I see this in an STL Beacon story in PDF this year). But Bville lost 10K students in ten years, only 1000 fewer students than lost by STL Archdiocese. Something's rotten in diocesan schools here.