Bishops consider plans to revitalize appeal of a Catholic education

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Dennis Sadowski

(CNS) — Catholic bishops are looking to “transform” Catholic schools
in response to decades of declining enrollment that has forced hundreds of
schools to close since 2005.

The effort,
said the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education,
encompasses a wide-ranging look at issues facing Catholic schools and a renewed
effort to help parents better understand that the spiritual development of a
child goes hand in hand with academic achievement.

concern of the bishops is that Catholic schools are valuable, Catholic schools
transform lives,” said Bishop
George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio. “It’s not only talking about
academics. It’s not only a matter of discipline, but it’s a matter of preparing
the whole person for college and for heaven.”

In an
interview with Catholic News Service following a Jan. 17-18 meeting at USCCB
headquarters that included 30 bishops, educators and representatives of Catholic
education organizations, Bishop Murry said the goal is to ensure that Catholic
schools will remain a vibrant and important part of family and church life.

by the University of Notre Dame, the meeting was the sixth in a series since
2009 looking at the future of Catholic education.

Forming the
backdrop are sobering statistics on school closings and declining enrollment.

from the National Catholic Educational Association show 1,393 Catholic school closings or
consolidations from 2007 to 2017 compared with 287 school openings. During the same period, enrollment declined by
19 percent to less than 1.9 million students. Enrollment peaked in 1965 at more
than 5.2 million students.

The bishops
and the educators focused on four trends during the meeting:

— The
changing relationship across Catholic school leadership including those between
bishop and pastors, pastors and principals, and principals and teachers.

— The
evolving landscape of Catholic school governance as more advisory boards of lay
leaders take shape.

— Expanding
access to Catholic schools through educational choice.

— Charter
school expansion.

Also underlying
the bishops’ concerns are shifting demographics, tuition costs and changes in the
practice of the faith, all of which influence whether parents decide to enroll
their children in Catholic schools.

Murry said the simple message that Catholic schools transform lives must become
the church’s basic refrain.

parents don’t see particular value in the religious formation that occurs in a
Catholic school,” Bishop Murry said. “So how can we challenge some of
those ideas so people come to a better understanding of why it is important to
develop the entire person?”

Pastors, he
explained, are diligently working to bring parents into parish schools to see
firsthand the advantages a Catholic education has in developing the “whole

with parishes with schools, pastors with parishes without schools, parish
school of religion directors have been working together to say it is a genuine value
for the future to train the whole person, not just the mind or the body — the
mind academically, the body in sports — but also to develop the spiritual
life,” the bishop told CNS.

“Unfortunately, we live in a very secular society. We are blessed that we’re not as secular as
many of the countries in Europe. But we are a very secular society, and fewer
and fewer people see the value of that spiritual development. I think that
becomes the task of evangelization. Just programs to get people into church are
not enough. We have to change hearts.

not simply a matter of an intellectual decision. It’s a realization that I want
the very best for my son or my daughter. And part of the best is that that
child is eventually in heaven,” he said.

Bishop Murry,
69, speaks from experience. His parents, practicing Methodists at the time,
took the unusual step of enrolling him in St. Bartholomew School in Camden, New Jersey, midway through his
third-grade school year.

He recalled
that he “didn’t do well in public school” and that the atmosphere at
St. Bartholomew turned his life around.

He credited
Sister Mary Pauline, a member of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order founded by St. Katharine Drexel of
nearby Philadelphia, for her patience and caring attitude throughout third and
fourth grade.

was Catholic school that helped me to settle down and to focus,” Bishop
Murry said.

As for
rising tuition, Bishop Murry suggested two approaches. The first involves
helping parents realize that 27 states and the District of Columbia have
legislation providing financial assistance to parents who choose private or
faith-based schools.

The second
requires school leaders and clergy “to be courageous and undaunted in
going to donors, people whose lives have been positively affected by Catholic
schools and have been blessed with economic security … and ask them to give
back to Catholic schools,” he said.

have) to get them involved, to not be afraid to talk to them and say we need
your help in maintaining these schools,” Bishop Murry added.

The church
also is contending with the growth of charter schools. While publicly funded,
charters schools are privately run. They offer parents an alternative to
traditional public education.

However, oversight
of charter schools is spotty and at time lax. Numerous charter schools
nationwide have been found to be in disrepair, offer inadequate instructional resources
or a narrow curriculum, and lack transparency and public accountability. And at
some schools, student performance has been lower than at public schools in the
same community.

Murry said that even the most successful charter schools are not a substitute
for Catholic schools, “where the whole atmosphere is an atmosphere of
living faith.”

The work
ahead is expected to take time to unfold. Bishop Murry said. He hopes that
regional or statewide gatherings of bishops will undertake the question of transforming
Catholic schools. He also said another national gathering to discuss progress
would be beneficial.

was an excellent meeting,” he said of two-day gathering. “The
conversation was very, very good, very frank, and, I think, very helpful in
terms of mapping out a plan to go forward into the future in revitalizing our

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Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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