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.