‘Be practical and pray’

BOSTON - Catholic educators who gathered in Boston April 11-13 did not shy away from tough issues they face, such as declining enrollments, school closures and competition from charter schools.

During multiple workshops at the National Catholic Educational Association's annual convention, educators were advised to do more lobbying, strengthen their boards and school leaders, and put strategic plans in place. Above all, they were urged to be true to the mission of their Catholic school.

In one workshop, Catholic educators heard about similar patterns found in 35 Catholic schools that have recently closed.

Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, executive director of the Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College, shared some of the center's findings in interviews conducted with leaders from closed schools to determine if any of the closings could have been predicted.

Researchers spent an hour with leaders from each school and came away with similar findings. Most of the schools had little or no communication with staff or parents or strategic planning. They did not look at indicators around them such as changing demographics in their area. The schools typically had ineffective boards and many of them had poor facilities and maintenance.

Weitzel-O'Neill urged educators at the April 12 workshop to take a close look at their own schools and determine if they shared any characteristics of these closed schools and if so, to make some changes.

Christian Brother Raymond Vercruysse, former director of the Catholic Education Program at the University of San Francisco, similarly urged Catholic school teachers, principals and presidents to pay attention to what makes a school effective and strive to keep their schools in line with those practices.

For example, a recent study about successful independent schools also has plenty to say to Catholic schools, he said. Many measurements of success were echoed in other workshops. The indicators included strong leadership, strategic plans and cash reserves not just for school operations but for student scholarships and financial aid.

Brother Vercruysse also highlighted a key element that Catholic schools must have in place: "maintaining and continually strengthening their Catholic identity."

He sees survival as linked to how well Catholic schools are tied into their mission - which he said must be discussed when faculty members are interviewed for a job and reinforced during professional development programs throughout the year.

"This has to be deliberate," he said, noting that the crucial faith development of the students stems in part from what they hear and observe from the faculty.

The faith aspect of Catholic schools sets them apart from the growing number of charter schools, which began appearing in the 1990s.

During a convention workshop focusing on the impact of charter schools, a Catholic school superintendent noted that Catholic identity and cost (charter schools do not charge tuition) are the major differences between the two types of schools.

"In my experience, parents look at charter schools because they excel where Catholic schools excel," said Daniel Ferris, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Providence, R.I.

Ferris noted that charter schools claim to be values-oriented, have a bold sense of mission and even have uniforms. What they don't have is "faith formation - the heart of Catholic schools."

James Cultrara, director of education for the New York Catholic Conference, noted that initially the conference was behind charter schools as a means of providing parents with educational choice.

He said part of that support also was in hopes of gaining other school choice options such as tax credits, which could benefit Catholic schools.

He pointed out that the Catholic conference is not against charter schools or public schools but "wants a level playing field" in funding for all students and families.

He urged all Catholic educators to be alert to charter schools in their own state and in particular to finding out if the state has a cap on the number of charter schools allowed. With a growing number of charter schools, Catholic schools leaders need to lobby more strongly for public policies to help their families.

Abraham Lackman, founder and president of Praxis Insights, an educational and government consulting firm based in New York, offered a bolder assessment of charter schools' impact. Based on research on growing enrollment in New York charter schools, he said these schools are "extraordinarily dangerous to the viability of Catholic schools."

Currently, most charter schools are for the elementary level, but they are expected to expand, which Lackman likened to a "virus" that will spread to high schools as well.

Some educators attending the workshop expressed frustration with the trend.

One said several of her friends were sending their children to charter schools nearby because they provide nearly the same education as a Catholic school but for free. She said these friends "never hear from the pulpit" about the importance of a Catholic school education.

A school superintendent in Texas said she felt alone in the battle to save Catholic schools because when local Catholic schools closed people tend to think: "Oh well, we'll build a charter school."

A similar frustration was echoed by educators in the workshop about how to stop closing schools.

In both workshops, educators were urged to take steps to help Catholic schools overcome current challenges.

Weitzel-O'Neill offered educators some no-nonsense advice: "Be practical and pray."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970