21 October 2010

Lighting a Candle for Catholic Schools

Though work and consistory-watching have caused a little delay, I have not forgotten this post, the third in the past eight days on Catholic schools.  The first looked at the Epiphany School closing and subsequent charter school tenancy issues; the second focused on contraception as a root cause of the demise of Catholic schools; today I wish to discuss some possible solutions-- or beginnings of solutions-- to halt the slide and begin to rebound to vitality.

I don't claim to have the market cornered on ideas, and no doubt many of you have much better ones than I will discuss here.  My goal is to take the discussion in the combox, which has already been insightful, and focus it on generating ideas.

So, without further ado, consider just a few ideas:

1.  Vibrant Catholic Orthodoxy

Computer labs cost money.  Olympic-sized swimming pools cost money.  "Gifted", "Special Needs" and other specialty tracks require more resources in personnel and equipment that cost money.  I just name a few in overly simplified terms, but my point is that most of the varied ways that many Catholic schools choose to try to be like the better-funded public schools and thus "compete" with them entail a cost increase that strains an already strained system.

Instead of trying to be the same as the public school, why not try to be different?  And in what area can the Catholic school claim an unchallengeable superiority for Catholic students than in the formation of souls and minds in the faith? 

However, many Catholic schools fail to impart the basics of our faith, fail to form souls via a total Catholic formation, and offer an ersatz, caffeine-free version of "spirituality" that passes as Catholicism to uneducated young students and their woefully uncatechised parents.  In the grade schools this typically takes the form of spine-numbingly bad "children's liturgies" at Mass, zero-substance; "God made the world/draw a picture of your pet", catechism-free religion class; extracurricular projects like canned food drives; and the beginnings of the every religion is just as good as another mantra, as exemplified by your fifth grader knowing more about Ramadan than Lent, and thinking that Martin Luther King is a canonised Roman Catholic saint.  In high schools, it generally devolves to the "Vatican II means we don't have to believe in much anymore, other then to love everybody and do what we will."  Catholic high schoolers are taught (either in class or with a wink at the banal text they use) that homosexual activity is not wrong, that women priests are on the table, and that no doctrine matches the importance of a Marxist version of social justice.

The designers and implementers of Catholic religious curricula long ago ditched the Baltimore Catechism and other, similar, materials in the grade schools.  How often have you heard the complaint that the Baltimore Catechism-centered program just gave Catholics "an eighth grade understanding" of their faith.  Probably untrue, but let's assume it is. I ask you:  Wouldn't it be great to see every Catholic school graduate possess at least an eighth grade education?  How many do you see  these days (not judging the state of any person's soul, or their holiness, but merely in the knowledge of the teachings of the faith)?  Moreover, the "eighth grade understanding" is absolutely necessary before a student can derive serious good from the multitude of great Catholic thinkers through history.  How can a high school or college student comprehend a tenth of Aquinas without basic catechetical knowledge?  How can a student get the most from St. Francis de Sales without an understanding of the sacraments, their components and effects?

In high school, the lack of catechesis during and prior to matriculation leaves students open to the worst of heresies.  Without a firm basis in the faith, and with the state of analytical thinking at its nadir, the love-crush of comparative religions in our high schools leaves students to consider competing religious claims as a group of competing billboards and slogans, instead of a life-or-death question of truth and error.

We have "Catholic" schools that promise escape from poor quality or dangerous public schools.  We have those that promise entry into a particular social group or class--  a window to opportunity in the world.  And we have plain old wacky, semi-Catholic "progressive" schools. 

What we need are really, truly, Catholic schools.  Ones where children learn and love the faith.  Start one.  Just one.  Make it known.  I would wager that one such school will attract those Catholics who care about the faith, and will be successful.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the example will breed.  Start with one regional high school and grade school, and see what happens.

2.  Homeschooling:  Challenge and Opportunity

The type of vibrantly Catholic school I envision above would be exactly the type of school to which most Catholic homeschoolers would have gladly flocked had it been available when they made their decision to go it at home.  Once a family has success with homeschooling and finds it to be, for them, a better means to form their children, then the situation changes.  Many of those same homeschoolers, once they have begun, would not seek to enroll their children in any traditional school, even a truly Catholic one.  For them, that die is cast.  

But some would, for overall convenience, though they might prefer homeschooling.  And some homeschoolers would gladly enroll because the only reason they homeschool is due to lack of reasonable alternative.  The vibrantly Catholic school will still draw from the much larger group of families currently unhappily enrolled in their parish school, or who are enrolled in the public school because they lack a Catholic alternative.

So, is homeschooling "competition" to the Catholic school?  Perhaps, but it needn't be.  Instead of our schools being stuck in a rigid structural posture of a century ago, it is time for them to consider new alternatives.  The alternative I propose for discussion is the hybrid home/parish school.

In some ways this is prefigured by the growing number of homeschool coops in the Archdiocese.  Parents who teach the bulk of their curriculum at home come together with other homeschoolers to cover certain classes, or extracurricular activities, that they don't feel as comfortable teaching, or that they can't do alone, e.g., science lab, foreign language, drama, catechism from a certain Salesian society of priests, etc.  The parent remains directly in control of the curriculum and chooses to share a bit of the burden.

As the enrollment at parochial schools began to dip, it was natural that a cooperation between full and part-time families would have been unworkable and was resisted.  Yet now, what is there to lose?  What better way to add vitality and Catholic identity than to make common cause with those parents of a parish that choose to directly exercise their right and obligation to educate their children?

A school could offer a full-time curriculum, a part-time set curriculum, and a voluntary curriculum.  There could be the community coop program, where parents could send their children one, two or three days a week.  Teachers could serve as tutors or educational consultants to assist-- not usurp-- the parent teachers.  Tuition could be based on a sliding scale of services used. 

Extracurricular activities could be open to all.  This seems to be of minor importance, but in high school, a homeschooled child has very little opportunity to play organized sports, especially the ones that require large teams.  The MSHSAA excludes homeschoolers from playing with their neighborhood school.  This cooperative school model would address this specific problem at least.

Again, this post is by nature of space speculative, but I can see such an innovative program drawing Catholics from a regional area.  Why not start a pilot parish school and see where it leads?

3.  Wichita Model:  Can It Work Here?

Returning to the more traditional notion of the parochial school, the question of cost is huge.  It is good to encourage families to live out Catholic teaching on the primary end of marriage, but what are our schools, and parishes, doing to give this practical effect?  Of course we need sound teaching in the classroom and sound preaching from the pulpit.  But each child adds cost to the equation of education.

Some schools used to give discounts for "additional children", and some still do.  I used to be on a parish school board that charged X for tuition for one child, X +$500 for the second, and no additional tuition for subsequent children.  Over time, these discounts were reduced and all but eliminated.

The problem is that the thinking about "tuition" is wrongly focused.  If Catholic formation is the goal, this is a parish duty.  It is a duty of every Catholic.  By charging tuition as a fee for service, it reduces the decision-making to a more utilitarian model.

For example, I have proposed that more children would ensure the vitality of the Catholic schools.  Yet I have heard pastors and parents retort that each additional child from one family (assuming any tuition discount involved) costs the school more money and actually endangers its viability.  I get the point, but it is incredibly short sighted, because it only accounts for one generation of student. 

If the children of a two-child family marry children from same-sized families and each new family produces two children each, there is a net gain of zero additional families.  They merely replace the same number of families.  But if these same children marry and produce four children, there is a net gain of two families-- first generation of two, second generation of four.  Consider if they had six children, and so on.  And that is just one new generation; picture this continuing over three or four.  Over a short time there are now many income-earning families to share the costs of education.

Now, to get there from here, consider this possibility:  the Wichita Diocese has a model of parish support for education that is completely penalty-free for large families, and which greatly encourages participation of the school families with the sacramental life of the parish. There is no tuition in the Wichita Diocese.  You commit to a certain level of parish stewardship, and the school is free.

Kansas Catholic sent me a link to a post he made on the subject here.  Take a look at this and come back.

Back?  O.K.  Of course under this plan there is no "free" lunch.  But what it does do is to explicitly place the formation of children in the basket of parish concerns.  It diminishes the all-too-normal dichotomy of "school" families and "parish" families.  It brings the adults back to the church as a necessary part of sending their children there.  And hence, in our "vibrantly Catholic" school above, the parents, too, will begin to learn that faith that is theirs from the font, but which was neglected in the wilderness of the last four decades.

Extrapolate faith, children, vocations and families over time, and you have something.  Maybe the schools can be saved by doing what they used to do:  raise and form Catholic children  who become Catholic adults-- Catholics with the tools to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling."

That's long enough for a start.  Feel free to comment.


Peggy said...

The Belleville diocese has been working toward a more cost-causer approach to tuition, quite the opposite of Wichita. The diocese offers financial aid to any family that applies and will continue to offer multi-child discounts and a family cap. This process began under Bp. Gregory. Now, as an economist who abhors subsidization and the market inefficiencies it causes, it is odd for me to support the idea of parish stewardship obligations to minimize, if not eliminate, the need for tuition. Further, as our pastor has noted, the faithful can write off tithes to the parish, but not tuition. While this is not the only solution necessary, it is one that should be considered.

I agree that some "merging" of home school and parish education activities would be a good idea. Your ideas are interesting. I don't have a particular idea beyond allowing homeschoolers to use an under-utilized or empty parish school perhaps for some de minimis rent--or free. Let a parish convert to an education coop, as you suggest. One has to pay in, but also contribute in teaching time or materials perhaps.

Also, take an ad out, issue an RFP to male and female religious orders to offer to educate the children of a parish--of course requiring orthodoxy in religious instruction. Request a full proposal of curriculum, cost, staffing needs, qualifications of members of an order, number of children that could be educated at cost & staff levels, etc. [Do Cath schools have to meet all state licensing requirements of teachers, etc?]

Finally, can Catholic schools find a way to serve kids with special needs?

Some ideas. This is a topic we must engage, especially as the culture goes to pot. Our parishes do not adequately meet our needs as a refuge from this culture.

Anonymous said...

When I mentioned the SSPX school in St. Louis I was quite serious. Read the latest from The Remnant website. It is very enlightening and baffling at the same time. The educational curriculum is traditional, you don't have to worry about being PC, the staff and priests are Orthodox Catholics. There is a limited budget, money is not thrown at the school and yet they bring about very catechized young people.etc... I am not a member of the SSPX chapel but find this as a viable solution and the priests are respectful of the confession difficulties.
The SSPX has been ostrasized for years and it seems that their situation is improving at a remarkable speed. My prayer is that they come back de jure within the church (fully and visibly)since their presence would probably be better within the church.

Tina aka Snupnjake said...

Please don't paint every Catholic school with the same wishy washy squishy brush. I went to St. Boniface and was taught the Faith. I remember having to memorize reams of things for Confirmation. We said prayers as a class 4 times a day. When an ambulance drove by school, we would pray for the people in the ambulance. We did learn about other religions when they came up in history but Catholic was best.

I went to St. Elizabeth Academy for high school and yes, in retrospect the music was all the stuff traddies love to hate. It may have gotten squishy in senior year because that was when you had the Living as Christians Class...but up until then... and it wasn't wishy washy about other religions.

Also, you can't teach what you don't know. Where do religion teachers come from? Maybe we should be looking at those formation programs as well.

Athelstane said...

Hello Timman,

An excellent and thoughtful essay.

So, is homeschooling "competition" to the Catholic school? Perhaps, but it needn't be.

I think we must recognize that homeschooling...is not for everyone. And I think most of us do. Though it can work superbly for many parents (more than might think so), not all are perhaps intellectually or emotionally equipped to do it, or cannot afford (in terms of money or time) to do it. Keeping a vibrant and truly Catholic school option is critical.

And this is why I like your idea of a hybrid. It offers greater choice to Catholic parents, who might otherwise opt against homeschooling because some aspects of it are difficulties for them. This kind of menu of options might impel some parents to choose a partial homeschooling option.

And bonus points for alluding to my favorite passage from scripture, Philippians 2:12.

Anonymous said...

Every parish school board and parish council in the City and County have explored reasons why enrollment continues to plummet at Catholic schools in the area.

What is your secret of success at St. Francis de Sales Elementary School?

thetimman said...


The cleverness of your comment is somewhat lessened by the fact that the former de Sales parish closed long ago, affected by the same conditions I tried to cover in my first two posts on the subject.

It has been five years since the traditional Catholic community came to the new de Sales Oratory. A homeschool coop started four years ago and has brought vitality back to the campus. The old high school building, long in disuse, has been reclaimed and given a makeover. The coop is a great success, and families from and not from the Oratory receive great assistance in the education and formation of their children.

Priests and oblates from the ICRSP teach catechism. The children take classes in French, Latin, higher math, science, literature, drama and so on. Mothers have group support to take back to the home environment. Each coop day includes the Holy Mass. This is a prototype of the type of hybrid school I discussed in the post.

Those school boards you mentioned weren't famous for pushing a return to traditional Catholic pedagogy. Why not try something different than slow failure?

So to answer your question, there's the secret of our success at de Sales. And there has been some.

Anonymous said...

If you want to "light a candle for Catholic schools," then be extra careful about your own school if you hear that Meitler Consultants is back in your neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, what are the catechetical teachings. I could safely assume that some of the touchier-feelier aspects of what passes for Catholic formation are nowhere to be found, to which I would give a hearty huzzah. But i have to ask:

- Is the Novus Ordo Mass denigrated in the religious teachings?

- Non-headcovering wearing female attendance at Mass?

- Accepting communion in the hand, without kneeling?

Mind you, I am not opposed to these practices, but I would be opposed to a catechism that teaches them as the 'only' right way, or that, for instance, would teach that so-called "Eucharistic ministers" are an aboomination in the eyes of all that is right and holy. Such teachings would be against the teaching of the Catholic Church as it currently exists. (I know, Timman, I know, for the sake of argument I will give you a mulligan on the headcovering thing.)


Genuinely curious

Anonymous said...

I notice that someone has mentioned Meitler Consultants on this line, and I cannot resist denouncing that anti-Catholic-heritage mob whenever there is a window of opportunity. These are the people who somehow have attainted a high profile with the association of American bishops (that's an honor?) for wrecking and closing and dismantling and shuttering and disappearing our patrimony of schools and churches. Sure some of this has to go on, but a close-close-close mentality when it comes to older parishes amd especially Slavic ethnic ones, is not respectful of our heritage our going to be helpful in the future. Their fees are certainly huge enough that we could expect some CREATIVE input from them on how to preserve our churches and schools. Before investing in their huge fees (by the way, their "specialists" include nuns in layclothes), we ALREADY KNOW that bills would go down if we'd simply close a lot of places!!!!! I say "Close Meitler."

Anonymous said...

I will never, never, never pass up an opportunity to add my 2 cents when I see a negative reference to Meitler Associates. I hate them! The previous commenter is right on. We have Meitler to thank for advising our beloved archbishop (who was just new at the time to St. Louis and didn't know the lay of the land so well) to practically eradicate the Church on the north side of the city. I especially agree with th3e thesis that if they are going to earn the big fee they demand, we should be getting some creative, new ideas about how to continue using our beloved institutions in ways that continue the Catholic presence where they are. I'd say put Meitler, not your nearby Slavic parish, in mothballs forever!

Patrick Kinsale said...

When Gateway Academy lost its high school, some the parents got together and formed a hybrid coop called the John Paul II Preparatory School. I love the idea of all these alternatives to the usual parochial heresy and dissidence.

Anonymous said...

It's a number of years after these comments have been posted. I, too, however, with serious determination, add my opinion to some of the others that the more traditional Catholicism, especially when the roots are Slovak or Czech or Croatian or Slovenian or Polish or any other groups from eastern Europe must all be wary when Meitler Associates come onto the scene. Sign me: Disgusted with Meitler