The future of Catholic schools

At one point, I thought Catholic schools were a thing of the past — an extremely precious gift but a gift that was diminishing rapidly. I no longer believe that. Let me explain why.

I am familiar with school closings. In 1955, my parish school closed. I had just finished third grade in a small school with one classroom for the first three grades; we moved to the next of three aisles in the classroom each year. Despite those early challenges, however, I was very aware of the gift of Catholic schools. 

When I think back to that small classroom at St. Mary School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, and the total of 22 years of Catholic school (including seminary), I remember how we were formed by high standards in a very personal way. To this day, my seventh grade teacher, Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart Sister Mary Denis, writes regularly to encourage me on the right path.  

My classmates and I received a great academic foundation as well as solid moral principles grounded in our Catholic faith. Most of all we met the person of Jesus Christ in and through his Church, which profoundly affected my character and my growth in holiness.

In Louisville, many others have shared similar experiences. Take John Lechleiter, now CEO of Eli Lilly & Company. In 1959, he entered first grade in St. Stephen Martyr School, the first of nine Lechleiter children to do so in their primarily blue collar, working-class neighborhood.

After completing high school at Louisville’s St. Xavier, an undergraduate degrees at Xavier University in Cincinnati and master’s and doctorate degrees as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Harvard University, John began his career at Lilly in 1979 as an organic chemist. He is now the first scientist to lead the company since the Lillys themselves, who were trained as pharmacists.

John acknowledges that the Catholic elementary education that his parents gifted to him and his eight siblings was made possible by the sacrifices of so many.

“While we didn’t formally receive tuition assistance in those days, we received assistance in a different way. It came from the Dominican sisters who instructed all of us and were paid so little in return for their vocation. It came also from the broader parish family at Sunday Mass, where collections were devoted, in large part, to the operation of the school. And it came from my mother and father who sacrificed financially and volunteered endlessly at the parish and school to defray costs and make so many activities, programs and events possible.”

Today, no Dominican sisters teach at St. Stephen Martyr School; there are lay faculty members who must support their families. And a smaller percentage of the Sunday Mass collection is dedicated to the school because of growth in other ministries. The result: higher education costs that must be borne by Catholic school families.

On behalf of all of his siblings who recently gave a $1 million gift to the Catholic Education Foundation of Louisville, Kentucky, John remarked:

“Our Catholic education was an experience that defined our futures in many ways and provided a spiritual path that has largely contributed to any success we have had in our lives. How blessed we are to give back so that others may have access to this same educational experience — one that truly lasts a lifetime.”

These memories about the storied history of Catholic schools inspire a great deal of pride. They also should inspire a bold determination to strengthen these schools as we seek to educate future generations of Catholic youth.

In speaking at the 2016 Salute to Catholic School Alumni dinner here in Louisville, my friend Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan challenged our Church to transform the vision for Catholic school education from nostalgic memories to a firm resolve for the future. Catholic schools have a future, and really young people will have a future because of Catholic schools.

We have embraced that challenge in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Before I outline what we have been doing, let me share the story of a family benefitting today from a Catholic school education:

Born into a strong Catholic family, Evelyn came to Louisville from Nicaragua in 2004 and immediately began looking for a Church home. She found it at St. Rita Parish. By the time her two children, Emmanuel and Gabriel, now 8 and 5, were born, she actively volunteered at the parish. Evelyn knew the parish had a school but assumed it was too expensive and so enrolled her firstborn son at a local public school.

During the summer before her son began second grade, Evelyn attended Mass, and heard about a special assistance program for Hispanic families. Evelyn immediately asked for an application and by the next day, her son was accepted into second grade at St. Rita School. At the same time, she was able to enroll Gabriel into St. Rita’s preschool program.

“St. Rita School has been the best thing I have done with my boys,” Evelyn says. The school responded with helpful interventions to address Emmanuel’s learning issues, and he is happy and doing well.”

Thankful for this opportunity for her family, Evelyn serves on the school board and as a translator for other Hispanic families who are navigating the financial aid and enrollment process for the school.

Evelyn greatly appreciates the experience of a Catholic school education for her family: “The kids in a Catholic school learn that when God is the center of their lives — no matter what they will confront on life — they were made for great things, and they can make the difference in the world.”

Giving a child a chance

The Church provides Catholic school education because we want to give children a chance by inviting them, through God’s grace, to realize their God-given gifts and become all they can be as they grow wisdom, truth and grace. True to Jesus’ great commission, we announce the good news in every age.

In recent years, no one questions the gift of Catholic schools, but many falsely assume that it is fading. While the Archdiocese of Louisville is blessed with among the highest per capita enrollment of Catholic school systems in the nation and a more than 200-year history of Catholic schools, we have joined others nationally in a common litany of enrollment, financial and governance challenges. Several decades saw the closing and merger of many schools and a focus on problems and crises.

We shifted our focus last year.

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Thanks to the leadership of our chancellor, Brian Reynolds, Ed.D., and our superintendent of schools, Leisa Schulz, and with the assistance of the Catholic Education Foundation, we decided to focus on the child who deserves a chance for a Catholic education rather than on crisis management and structures.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the closures and mergers were inevitable: they are casualties of massive demographic shifts and a chronic lack of planning in decades past. The positive and future-focused outreach to families we have embraced, however, has created new energy and confident hope for our Catholic schools.

The focus shifted due to the Catholic Elementary School Plan, part of our 2014 Archdiocese of Louisville Strategic Plan, which proposed novel strategic solutions for welcoming new families and giving more children a future because of Catholic schools.

When Cardinal Dolan spoke at our Salute to Catholic School Alumni dinner, he congratulated our archdiocese for finally realizing the precept of the 3rd Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) that every parish should establish a parochial school.

No, we do not have a school on every property of our 110 parishes in 24 counties of Central Kentucky. In fact, most parishes don’t have a school. As part of the Elementary Plan, however, we successfully persuaded every parish of its communal and corporate duty to support a child who deserves a chance by becoming a sustaining partner in funding Catholic schools. All parishes donate 1 percent of parish income to a tuition assistance fund that is administered by the Catholic Education Foundation. For the 2015-16 school year, this new funding mechanism, combined with robust fund-raising by the Foundation, resulted in a 59 percent increase in financial assistance.

Here comes everybody

For many years, I have heard from employers from a variety of backgrounds about their deep respect for Catholic schools and the Catholic school alumni whom they employ. They have experienced good character, discipline, unselfishness and well-developed skills in graduates of our Catholic schools. At the same time, our community benefits from good citizens imbued with a commitment to the common good. This genuine commitment by the Catholic parishes and pastors has been matched by a visionary focus on expanding the mission of Catholic education to reach out to everyone in our community who is interested. With its tagline “the answer is Yes,” the Catholic Education Foundation, founded in 1995 thanks to Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, O.P., signaled its commitment to working with every family, whether Catholic or not, to provide the tuition assistance needed for a Catholic elementary school education. These efforts rocketed tuition assistance to a record $5 million for the 2015-16 school year. The foundation also has streamlined and improved the application process by combining all sources of financial aid into one process with a timely notification to families about their awards.

In addition, Richard Lechleiter, president of the foundation, has called forth a “yes” from the broader community by significantly increasing the corporate and civic community’s support for Catholic education.

Welcoming new families

As demonstrated by Evelyn’s story, new families are being welcomed into Catholic schools. Last year St. Rita, a previously struggling school, experienced an increase of 45 students during the 2015-16 school year and a similar expected increase is expected for the 2016-17 school year. This outreach largely resulted from a donor who successfully invited other contributors to match his donation to support increased Hispanic enrollment combined with the commitment of the Catholic Education Foundation to assist Hispanic families with the enrollment and financial aid process. Evelyn’s story is just one of many successes.

The welcome to new families also has enriched our educational offerings. For many years, networks of families, many of whom began by home-schooling their children, had formed “independent Catholic” schools without formal ecclesiastical approval. Some of these grass roots efforts offered unique educational models to underserved populations, especially children with disabilities. As part of the Catholic Elementary School Plan, our Superintendent’s Office developed a clear pathway with concrete benchmarks for canonical approval. As a result, we welcomed three new Catholic elementary schools to our archdiocesan family this year. This process has created a greater sense of communion and inclusion as families have witnessed the archdiocese reach out and work collaboratively to encourage and support a rich diversity of school models and opportunities for children who deserve a chance.

Scholarship tax credits in the wind

The Elementary School Plan also addresses systemic change to foster educational choice for parents. Through the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the four bishops of Kentucky committed staff and resources to pass legislation for scholarship tax credits. We have made better than expected progress with the legislature, but even more important with the community, through the formation of EdChoice Kentucky. This coalition of business leaders, civic leaders, citizens and educators promotes the value of allowing individuals or businesses to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit from state taxes when they contribute to qualified nonprofit organizations providing tuition assistance for low- and middle-income students attending non-public schools.

During his address at the Salute dinner, Cardinal Dolan encouraged us to answer Jesus’ call to cast our nets into the deep by offering all children the opportunity to experience the best success story in American education. I am confident that these new efforts at giving a child a chance, welcoming new families and preparing for a strong future for Catholic schools has created a new day for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz is archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.