Schools devise innovative ways to stay open

For Catholic school administrators, creativity is proving to be just as essential outside the classroom as it is for their students within.

After the Archdiocese of New York’s June announcement that it was closing 24 elementary schools due to declining enrollment and financial problems — a move similar to a decision of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in early 2012 — it made a move in July that would save others from a similar fate.

Starting this fall, the Partnership for Inner-City Education will take over management of six schools in the Bronx and Harlem. The nonprofit organization will assume responsibility for the financials, teachers and curriculum, while the archdiocese will oversee the schools’ religious education programs.

In a statement, Cardinal Timothy Dolan explained the decision, saying, “We can’t afford ‘business as usual.’”

Across the country, with enrollment in Catholics schools down more than 25 percent since 2000, other dioceses, parishes and schools have reached the same conclusion, with many finding innovative ways to keep their doors open.

Fundamentals first

One such is Catholic East Elementary, a Milwaukee school serving kids in prekindergarten through eighth grade. Four years ago, Catholic East hired principal Gail Kraig and asked her to do the near impossible: turn around a school that was in debt, had only 64 students enrolled for the coming year and was literally falling down.

To confront those problems, Kraig hired a new business manager and together they spent the summer cleaning, weeding and painting the school. She also launched what she termed “a fast and furious marketing campaign,” devoting her weekends to talking about her vision for the school and the importance of Catholic education at every Sunday Mass in all five sponsoring parishes. As funds began to roll in, technology was upgraded. Kraig also worked with teachers, providing opportunities for formation and coaching to both enhance the school’s academics and Catholic identity.

The school encouraged parents to take advantage of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, which puts educational vouchers into the hands of economically disadvantaged students, enabling more families to choose Catholic education. Four years later, Kraig’s approach has more than paid off. This fall, Catholic East will welcome 260 students to two completely renovated buildings on two campuses.

The school is in the black, and it has added four additional teachers, two administrators and a full-time director of religious formation and campus ministry, along with a fully staffed before and after-school care program.

“Turning around a school is tremendously hard work,” said Kraig. “It has to start from the top down, and things don’t happen overnight. But if you dig in and model the mission and importance of Catholic education, hearts will eventually change.”

A heart for mission

Seven hundred miles away, in the small town of Beloit, Kan., St. John’s Catholic School tried a different method to keep its 135-year-old school afloat.

Like most Catholic schools in the United States, St. John’s lost more than a third of its student population. However, unlike most Catholic schools, St. John’s had a more limited pool of recruits from which it could recoup those losses. With fewer than 4,000 people in the town and only one Catholic parish, Beloit is the smallest city in the United States to support a Pre-K through 12 Catholic school.

Five years ago, in an effort to secure its future, the school sought the help of Julius Capital Partners in Chicago and consulted with Patrick McCloskey of the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University in Chicago. At his suggestion, the school then implemented a Great Books classical curriculum, a distance education program that allows students to gain a broad, liberal arts education through the study of the great books while in high school or college.

At the same time, principal Marcy Kee hired several young faculty members, all who were knowledgeable and passionate about the Catholic faith. They began overhauling the religious education curriculum, including introducing the theology of the body into the high school classrooms. They also launched multiple initiatives to promote Catholic identity in the school’s student life offerings, from weekly Eucharistic adoration and mission trips, to apologetics debates with local Protestant pastors and a yearly prayer pilgrimage to the nearest abortion clinic.

Five years and 28 new families later, St. John’s is out of the woods and was recently recognized by the U.S. bishops for its overall excellence.

“It’s not rocket science, and it’s not magic,” said Andrew Niewald, theology teacher and development director. “We just knew that if we did what we were supposed to do as Catholic educators, people would come.”

Carving a new niche

In Tacoma, Wash., Visitation Catholic School hopes that advice holds true for them as well. In the 1960s, more than 500 students sat in the school’s classrooms. Only 125 students sit there today. Ten years ago, that led the Archdiocese of Seattle to announce the school’s closing. Parishioners rallied around the school, however, and raised the funds to keep it open. Numbers grew. Then, the recession hit, and the school began hemorrhaging students once more, losing 50 students in five years.

Assessing the situation, Visitation Parish’s new pastoral administrator, Father Nicholas Wichert, with help from the archdiocese and the Fulcrum Foundation, decided that two things needed to happen to avoid another threat of closure. First, parents needed to be reassured that the “education in the Faith was strong.” Second, Visitation needed “to find its own niche in the educational market.”

To accomplish the first, Father Wichert hired a principal who was on board with his plan to strengthen the school’s Catholic identity. Together, they’re re-evaluating the religious education curriculum, and Father Wichert catechizes the school’s seventh and eighth-graders. To accomplish the second, the school is transitioning to a STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and will be known as Visitation Catholic STEM Academy. Matt Kloser, of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, is consulting with the school to rework the curriculum, find resources and market the program.

“Our goal is not just to keep the school open,” Father Wichert said. “We want to lay a foundation and point them in the right direction. That’s what Catholic schools are supposed to do. And that’s why it’s important that they not only survive, but thrive.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.