Bright Ideas in Catholic Schools

In the early 1960s, more than 5.2 million students attended nearly 13,000 Catholic schools nationwide. From then on, the numbers of schools and students dropped continually. According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), by 1990, approximately 2.5 million students were enrolled in 8,719 schools. Most seriously affected were the elementary schools, particularly in large urban areas where nearly one-third have closed since 2003.

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There are now 5,472 elementary and 1,213 secondary Catholic schools serving 2 million children in the United States. According to the NCEA, in 2013, 148 Catholic schools closed or consolidated, and 28 new schools opened. Some closed because of declining enrollment, even though 2,166 existing schools currently have waiting lists for admission. Others struggled, or are still struggling financially, and just can’t keep their doors open. Making it work requires changes and mergers. Regional consolidations sometimes challenge people to accept that their parish school tradition and identity are no longer the same. Changes come, too, when a completely new idea emerges, and a new school becomes not a “loss” for any parish, but rather a Catholic institution with its own identity.

Following are six U. S. schools that, in the past five years, have succeeded, whether through regional collaborations or new ideas. As such, they are beacons of light in the commitment to Catholic education.


Frassati Catholic Academy


Frassati Catholic Academy in Wauconda, Ill., is named after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. In fact, the future saint’s niece — Wanda Gawronska of Rome — sent the school a ruler from his desk. But that’s not the only connection the school has with Blessed Frassati who lived in Turin, Italy.

“I want our children to be able to capture the heart of what Pier Giorgio’s spirituality was all about,” said Father Ronald Lewinski, president of the academy. “He became the icon — more than a patron — of what we are trying to do. Ultimately, we are not just trying to raise good Catholic children and citizens. We are trying to raise saints.”

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Frassati Catholic Academy opened in 2010 in a wing of the campus of the separately run Transfiguration Parish School. The academy is sponsored by nearby Transfiguration Parish, Santa Maria del Popolo Parish in Mundelein, Ill., and St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish in Fremont, Ill., where Father Lewinski is pastor. It’s supported by a consortium of the three parish schools and the academy (operating out of the same budget), grants from the Archdiocese of Chicago and tuition. Four years after opening, 120 students are enrolled at the academy in grades 6, 7 and 8, under the leadership of principal Dr. Diane Vida. Some are from other parishes, and some aren’t Catholic.

The three sponsoring parishes had been experiencing decreasing enrollment in their own schools.

“That was one of the concerns for me, and I felt that the Catholic school system was getting a little stale,” Father Lewinski said. “Frankly, we were doing the right things, the grades were fine and all that, but I wasn’t satisfied with the kind of leadership that I was seeing coming out of schools. I wasn’t satisfied with the depth of religious formation. Obviously, they were being taught the Catholic faith, but there was still something missing.

For instance, he said, the rich and beautiful Catholic faith can be overwhelming for a 12-year-old. And middle school is a time when students learn differently than they did in elementary school and than they will in high school. So how to reach them?

Frassati Catholic
A graduate from Frassati Catholic Academy receives Communion. Photo courtesy Frassati Catholic Academy

One answer was to hold high the characteristics of Pier Frassati’s short life (1901-1925) and his love for the poor.

“John Paul II called him a man of the beatitudes,” Father Lewinski said. “So we wrote a spiritual charter that highlights his five charisms: a spirit of the beatitudes, healthy relationships, the centrality of the Eucharist, discipleship and mission and perseverance. When we interviewed potential teachers, they had to be practicing Catholics. We asked them how they were going to share the Faith with enthusiasm and joy. We were asking them to buy into our vision. They might have been the best math or science teachers, but we have chosen something more.”

The school has made a positive impact on other Catholic schools.

“Frassati kind of sets the standards,” Father Lewinski said. “The K-5 schools that want to send their kids here need to be at this level.”


All Saints Catholic School


When it was first announced, the idea for All Saints Catholic School in Kenosha, Wis., met some resistance. Two more Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had closed, and All Saints was to be a collaboration of 10 parishes in Kenosha and Pleasant Prairie.

“Part of our strategic plan was to make sure that the parishioners in all the churches thought of All Saints as their own, and that they weren’t thinking, ‘My school is closed,’” said Jackie Lichter, principal of the school that opened in August 2011.

All Saints Catholic School
Anna McNair’s kindergarten students work on a volcano project with their fifth-grade buddies. Photo courtesy of All Saints Catholic School

“It took a lot of conversations and meetings to convince people that this was the right way to go. It quickly became one of my roles to help families through the grieving process of letting go of what was, and embracing what was new. That really was part of my work in the first year — listening, compromising and still digging in my heels to establish a new identity of the school.”

No students and no teachers existed in June 2011 when Lichter interviewed for the position of principal. By the time the doors opened that August, however, 433 students were enrolled. All Saints now has 579 students on two campuses. The buildings are about 2 miles apart on space leased from former Catholic schools. The locations were chosen based on the conditions of the facilities and resources available.

“It is a huge new model and is now bringing students from all over the city, from surrounding parishes and central locations,” Lichter said. “We are now bringing people from pretty traditional communities and progressive communities all together in one school. We have been very mindful about the different charisms that exist in these parishes and how we can meet the needs of the families.”

The school is funded in part by a subsidy from each parish based on the number of school-age families, and by weekly contributions. About $500,000 of the annual $2.3 million budget comes from the 10 parishes. After three years of collaboration, the pastors signed on to subsidize the school for an additional five years. Tuition is another funding source, and an annual benefit auction raises about $75,000.

A priest and representative from each of the parishes serve on the board, along with Lichter.

A collaborative identity is promoted, too, with parish priests rotating Masses at the school, and once a month each parish asks its All Saints students to wear their uniforms at an outreach Mass.

“In that way, we have a visible presence of our school at the parishes,” Lichter said.

There currently are 50 faculty and staff members, including two religious sisters, and 28 of those teachers were hired from closed schools.

“We were able to pick every teacher specific for our mission,” Lichter said. “We have a strong Catholic identity. We are Catholic to the core, and that’s rooted in Scripture and liturgy. I think people are really seeking that out, and that’s one of the strong foundations — and what’s behind the strong academics — at All Saints.”


Jesuit Cristo Rey High School


It took Jesuit Father TJ Martinez one year to find property and to open Jesuit Cristo Rey High School in Houston, Texas, in 2009. Working in his favor were supportive corporate leaders in the city who saw the merit in taking teenagers from the most disadvantaged circumstances and training them to be future leaders.

Jesuit Cristo Rey High School
Students celebrate being members of the first graduating class of Jesuit Cristo Rey High School last June. Photo courtesy of Jesuit Cristo Rey High School

The Cristo Rey Network, founded in Chicago, is present in about 26 other cities nationwide. The school model works like this: Students attend an extended school day, from about 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and one day a week they are sent out to work at entry-level jobs in the business world. They run copy machines, file papers, answer phones, deliver mail and comfort patients in hospitals while learning about career opportunities in the field of health care.

The money the students would have made for their odd jobs goes to the school to fund their education. So far, students have earned $3 million toward their education, paid by the 130 companies that hired them.

“The Houston community has been so generous,” said Bee Dickson, director of advancement, who noted that the private school doesn’t receive government funding. “The foundations, individuals and companies who support us believe in what we are doing. They believe in our unique model of education.”

Students who apply have to meet grade-level standards and must be from economically challenged families.

“That’s what we are about, breaking those gravitational pulls that are bringing kids down,” Dickson said. “We are changing their futures.”

The first senior class graduated on June 1, 2013. All 60 students graduated, and all were accepted into colleges. That’s a remarkable record for any school and an indication of a promising future for young people who otherwise might have never reached — nor realized — their potential.

“As a Jesuit school, we have certain characteristics that we teach the kids and that they all possess at graduation,” Dickson said. “They are open to growth, and they are committed to justice. Everything we are about is for the greater glory of God.”

Incoming freshman take a summer session to prepare them for the workforce. They are taught personal skills like shaking hands and giving eye contact, and practical skills like using copy machines, answering phones and doing research on a computer. Some are just 14 when they begin working.

“So many of them go on these jobs and see possibilities they never imagined,” Dickson said. “They understand that their next step is college, and that the path to college begins now.”

Cristo Rey High School is in a former school that was purchased from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. With Father Martinez as president, it opened with 80 freshmen and, with a new grade added each year, 460 students now are enrolled. Half are from inner-city Catholic schools and the other half are from public schools. About 72 percent of them are Catholic, and lay teachers staff the school.


St. Francis International School


The school at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Hyattsville, Md., was struggling to survive, and the one at St. Camillus in Silver Spring could have stayed open treading water.

Then came a better idea. Why not work together to create an entirely different school?

St. Francis International School
Kindergarteners Anniah Michel and Isabel Keene pose for a shot. Photo courtesy of St. Francis International School

To make this idea a reality, Tobias Harkleroad, St. Camillus principal; Franciscan Brother Gerald Hopeck, vice principal; and Franciscan Father Michael Johnson, pastor, met with Father John Dillon, pastor of St. Mark, and considered combining the schools. The first conversations took place in November 2009, and by January 2010, they had received permission from Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., to proceed. The closing of the two schools was soon announced, and so too was the news of the opening of St. Francis International School (SFIC). Classes began in August 2010 for 432 students, in grades K-8. The school is located in the former St. Camillus School, which had been using one fourth of its classrooms for other purposes.

“We are now at full capacity (476 students) and are using every nook and cranny of this building. That’s a good thing, rather than the waste we had before,” said Harkleroad, who is now principal of SFIC.

The school also is supported by Our Lady of Vietnam Parish in Silver Spring and St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Wheaton. Tuition pays for much of the operating costs and, according to Harkleroad, about $250,000 in financial aid comes from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Every parish in the archdiocese contributes to a general education fund, and there are Sunday offerings to support Catholic schools. Additional funding is received from the archdiocese’s development program.

St. Francis International School got its name from two sources. One is because 78 percent of the students have at least one parent who was born abroad, representing 54 different countries. The other reason is that St. Camillus Parish is staffed by Franciscans, so St. Francis was chosen as the patron saint of the school to keep that Franciscan identity. There also are young friars in formation working part-time in the art program, and several Franciscans work at the school as part of their service year.

Sister Judith Parkin, a semi-retired Daughter of Charity, is assigned to the school part-time. Otherwise, the staff is mostly lay teachers.

“When we did the job interviews, we talked about why they wanted to work here, and what they really believed about the kids,” Harkleroad said.

“They had to buy into our mission that all of God’s children have to learn and grow and be the best they can be,” he added. “It’s not, ‘Do you want to be a Catholic teaching at a Catholic school?’ but, “Do you really want to take on the challenges?’”

The risk brought rewards as the collaboration eased financial pressure.

“We were able to move from struggling to survive to being really passionate about thriving,” Harkleroad said. “That was really freeing.”

With enrollment increasing, a second campus may be opened in the near future at the former St. Mark School.


St. Michael Catholic Elementary School


The annual tuition at St. Michael Elementary School in Cheney, Neb., costs $850 per child. It’s $637.50 for the second child in the family, $425 for the third, and additional children attend for free.

“We have some very happy families that are very appreciative that we can keep it at this price,” Principal Denise Ray said.

St. Michael Catholic Elementary School
Sr. Mary Clare practices music with students for Mass. Photo courtesy of St. Michael Catholic Elementary School

So how does the school that opened in August 2011 and serves 271 students (pre-K-8) from 135 families keep its costs so reasonable?

Answer: All of them have dedicated parents who contribute in several ways to support the parish school. These parents are asked to pay up to 3 percent of their income to support the church, 2 percent to the bishop’s annual charity and stewardship appeal for the Diocese of Lincoln and to buy $4,000 in Scrip every year. In that program, the school purchases discounted cards that are resold to families to use for purchases that they ordinarily would make.

Each family also is asked to donate 20 hours per year in time and talent toward something that otherwise would require paid help. One example: cleaning the school.

Families also participate in the parish festival, one of the largest fundraisers to benefit the school.

“The involvement with the parish families is community building,” said Father Borowiak, pastor of St. Michael Parish. “The families get to know each other.”

That sense of community was a factor in founding the school in the unincorporated village outside of Lincoln — an area that’s growing economically and in population. The parish grew, too, and added 100 new families (for a total of 720) in the two years preceding the opening of the school. That growth required that they relocate the parish property to the present 14 acres that was once public school property.

St. Michael School cost $7.1 million to build. The brick construction includes 52,000-square-feet of space, part of it a two-story stacked construction.

There are fields dedicated for soccer and baseball, a full-size competition gym, and rooms for music, art and science. Heating and cooling are provided by a cost-efficient and effective geothermal well field. A commons area currently serves as the church, and the growing parish will build a new church in the future.

Fifteen teachers serve on the school’s staff, including one religious sister and an assistant priest in residence.

They share the school’s philosophy that the children should “know who Jesus is, and that they can go to Him no matter what,” Ray said.

The principal is grateful to all the parishioners, particularly the senior citizens, who generously give volunteer hours to support the school.

Father Borowiak agreed. “We have some incredibly competent and giving individuals,” he said. “Without their willingness to step forward in time, talent and treasure, none of this would be possible.”


Immaculate Conception Catholic Regional School


Like many Catholic schools in the 1970s and 1980s, the school at St. Mark Parish in Cranston, R.I., struggled to survive. Challenges persisted when the small school became the Cranston-Johnston Catholic Regional School, serving multiple area parishes. There was talk of shutting it down. Talk turned into a real possibility when upgrades were estimated at $4 million, and no particular parish had owned the building for 30 years.

St. Michael Catholic Elementary School
Students from Immaculate Conception Regional School have an attitude of joy and are excited to come to school, said Principal Brian Cordeiro. Photo courtesy of ICRS

In 2006, Father Ron Brassard of Immaculate Conception Parish spearheaded a movement to keep Catholic education in the area and offered his parish’s commitment to build a school. The $9 million project was funded by the sale of the old school; a $6 million, 40-year mortgage amortized with the tuition; a capital campaign; and a loan. In 2009, students began the school year in the old building, but transitioned to the new Immaculate Conception Catholic Regional School in November. It was one of the first Catholic schools to open in the Diocese of Providence in more than 40 years. The school now enrolls 350 students, from pre-K to eighth-grade, from several nearby towns and parishes.

“We had some smart financiers who were helpful in mapping out a plan,” Principal Brian Cordeiro said. “We have the best building with state-of-the-art technology, but what separates Catholic schools are teachers who are faith-filled Catholic educators. They make the students fall in love with their faith.”

He also credits parents for their support.

“Our biggest supporters are parents who switched from public to Catholic school, and they noticed right away how we work together, how we sacrifice together, and how we are solving things together,” Cordeiro said. “Our faculty is also one of our biggest assets. We have veteran teachers with great experience, and we have phenomenal gifted emerging educators who bring so much talent and enthusiasm to the school.”

Immaculate Conception Catholic Regional School
The crucifix used during school liturgies. Courtesy photo

There’s a certain joyful attitude, he added, that can be seen in the teachers, leadership and students. “There’s a great love and joy in what we are doing, and it has paid off,” he said. “The kids are excited when they come to school. They are in a loving environment, and parents are gravitating toward successful places. They are saying, ‘My children love school, and they are joyful and happy.’ We are all about relationships with students and their parents.”

The building was designed with physical safety in mind, but the spirit of the school creates safety, too, through a culture of responsibility for each other. That concern is promoted in a Circle of Grace program that has dramatically cut down on bullying. And all of those things are important when it comes to attracting parents.

“It was a big risk, and it’s still a big risk,” Cordeiro said about building the new school. “But we talk about it being a leap forward with faith. The best days are ahead, not behind. We have to invest in the future, and we are taking that risk and leaping forward.”