Even before the recent nationwide financial crisis, diocesan cutbacks were driving the closure of some Catholic schools and preventing the opening of new ones as population patterns shifted in many areas. More recently, the recession has made it more difficult for many families to choose Catholic schools. How can Catholic schools stay afloat in this difficult time? What will the future bring?

In answering these questions, it is important to note some of the characteristics of Catholics who are now entering their childbearing years. One interesting result of the recent Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate study was that young-adult Catholics today are more similar in belief and practice to Catholics who entered adulthood before the Second Vatican Council than they are to the generations in between. One explanation for this is that, in a culture now so permeated with relativism, young Catholics are seeking a well-defined identity, a faith that provides universal truths, a way to know what is right and wrong. Certainly, most of the growth we have seen across Christian denominations in recent years has been in Christian communities that teach sure norms that are relatively stable as society changes. For the most part, mainline Christian denominations that have seen broad shifts in doctrine and practice have also seen sharp declines in membership.

Following this logic, then, we may conclude that the coming generation of Catholic parents will look for a strong sense of Catholic identity in Catholic schools. From a marketing perspective, this is also important. As resources become scarcer, why would parents choose Catholic school for their children if they do not perceive that Catholic school offers something that public school, or another private school, cannot?

Words and symbols

Promoting a uniquely Catholic culture in our schools is both a necessary task and a challenging one. In rising to this challenge, it is helpful to examine what variables make cultural identity survive and thrive. One important characteristic is a common language. How do we understand, and talk about, Catholic education? What do we mean by Catholic? And more broadly, what language do we share when we talk about our faith? Sharing a common language will mean a well-articulated mission, one that is communicated effectively to parents such that it attracts families to our schools.

A second characteristic of cultural identity is the use of symbols. What symbols do we see of Catholicism in our schools? When parents stop by to visit, does the Catholic school look different to them than the local public school or a Baptist school would? Children, especially those of elementary age, are very concrete thinkers and learners. The visible symbols around them, such as icons, statues, crucifixes and pictures of faith in action, help tell them about where they are and what they are learning. What unique ideas, values and beliefs do we promote in our Catholic schools, and how are they made visible in concrete ways?

Rituals matter

The identity-building power of rituals and traditions make them important characteristics of most academic institutions that have longevity. Current students want to remain because of the shared rituals that have built community and become an important part of their lives, and former students continue to support the school — and encourage their children to attend there — because of their fond memories of these traditions. In our Catholic tradition, we need not look far for ideas that can build the sense of collective identity in our Catholic schools. The liturgical calendar provides occasions for many types of celebrations and traditions, not to mention the day-to-day experiences of Catholic prayer and the sacraments.

Shared cultural norms, even ones that pose challenges to the individual, also build the sense of cultural identity. Catholic schools should not be afraid to promote an authentically Catholic, often countercultural, morality that includes respect for life at all ages and stages, promotion of chastity as a response to our understanding of the dignity of the body and sacredness of marriage, the necessity of social action, including solidarity with the poor, and countless other ways in which we as Catholics are called to be witnesses in society today.

Similarly, we live in a culture in which academic standards have been challenged by the notions of one’s “personal best,” leading to a situation in which we have many public school graduates with high self-esteem, but very little knowledge or academic skill. While needs and talents can vary greatly, we must also remember that children cannot rise to standards we do not set, and we must not be afraid to call them to rise to high standards of behavior and academic achievement, all the while assisting them in meeting the challenge.

Academics and aesthetics

Two additional and related issues remain — financial solubility and academic excellence. In an effort to keep tuition costs low, we have sometimes sacrificed resources that could enhance the educational process or beautify the environment. This can hurt schools in multiple ways. Some parents would prefer a Catholic education for their child but would be dissuaded if it appeared that choosing one would mean settling for lower academic standards. Other parents may not yet fully appreciate the value of Catholic identity but would be attracted to a school that could offer a higher quality program of study than the local public school or another private school.

We also cannot ignore the research that, from both a behavioral and a marketing perspective, environment matters. A school that looks nice will attract more families and, interestingly, research suggests, draw out better behavior in its students. But a high-quality faculty, well-equipped classrooms and a beautiful environment cost money. These things do attract families, but they are expensive. Often, in any given city the schools with the longest waiting lists are the ones that are most expensive. This leads to the question of what to do to make Catholic schools affordable to less affluent families.

Joseph D. White, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and director of Family Counseling and Family Life Office, Diocese of Austin.