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The future of Catholic high schools?

Late last year, I blogged on the decision of the Priests of Holy Cross, Indiana Province, to close Notre Dame High School for Boys (my alma mater). A few months later, I wrote a piece for the National Catholic Reporter detailing how province came to that difficult decision, and how the school would go on. I had hoped to bump the article here when it was published, but NCR firewalled the piece. Wisely, the paper recently opened its online archive to the masses (for a limited time). So for those of you still interested in following the story, click over to their Web site to read my piece. (It requires a few cumbersome steps: first you have to click a button to gain access to their archives; then you have to look in the back-issues area for the April 6 edition.) Alternatively, you can click here to read a copy of the piece that's archived on LookSmart. A sample:

The collision between high ideals and stark realities is becomingincreasingly common across the shifting landscape of Catholic educationin the United States, yet rarely is the conflict as vividly displayedas in the story of Notre Dame High School and the Holy Cross Indianaprovince. This tangled saga illustrates the crunch of the decliningnumber of priests and religious with the continuing dedication oflaypeople to Catholic education, while questions of ownership andCatholic identity add intrigue to the outcome.

Of the 1,203 Catholic high schools in the United States, 42 percentare sponsored by religious communities. The dwindling numbers ofreligious and their increasing financial burdens have forced manycongregations--such as the Jesuits and the De La Salle Brothers--tomove their schools to a two-tiered governance model. In such a model, apredominantly lay board oversees the daily operations of the school,while some powers are reserved by the sponsoring community, usuallyinvolving property and religious identity. "Congregations are realizingthat this is a way to continue the mission of their schools," accordingto Notre Dame Sr. Mary Frances Taymans, executive director of theSecondary School Department of the National Catholic EducationalAssociation. "Knowing the role they want to sustain over time has to dowith mission and charism," Taymans explained, these congregationsunderstand that "it's time to turn these institutions over."

But sometimes a governance transition is out of the question. Whena sponsoring community decides to close a school, according to Taymans,"usually the lay board and parents say they want to try to keep itopen." In those cases, "congregations tend to agree to maintainsponsorship, but not financial responsibility for the school," Taymanssaid. In the case of Notre Dame High School, however, that was never onthe table. When asked how the Indiana province decision compares tonational trends in Catholic secondary schools, Taymans said, "It tendsto go differently."

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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I was struck by the concern among some in your story about how Catholic a Catholic education can be without brothers, sisters and priests.I would also ask how Catholic that education might be when, in our diocese, half or more of the students are typically nonCatholics seeking an alternative to urban public high schools.One wonders to what extent Catholic schools have simply become private schools. With the tuition bills to match, since the supply of cheap and highly trained and educated teachers has dwindled with the dwindling populations of religious communities.

As a teacher in three different Catholic high schools for the past 12 years, I can say that there is a real battle going on for the soul of Catholic high schools. Some have done very well with maintaining a Catholic identity while others are really in straits. While I completely believe that it IS possible to have solidly Catholic high schools without Religious and priests, they desperately need committed Catholics (of the Commonweal type or whatever). Unfortunately I have come across more and more non-practicing Catholics teaching in Catholic schools and one rightly wonders have effective these teachers will be in passing on the faith if their own faith is lukewarm or non-existent.

Very interesting case study, Grant.(Very much by-the-way, I became a confirmed atheist when my religion teacher at a Catholic high school, a practicing Catholic, NFP-observant laywoman said that since all definitions of God fall short, therefore all world religions are equally valid. )I would think that one of the many reasons a religious congregation would begin a high school ministry has to do with developing religious vocations. So one of the factors in a pullout might be the non-feasiiblity of that goal nowadays, when vocation decisions are often made after college--a delay that communities recommend. There might be a parallel in the decline of Religious-sponsored high schools with that of minor seminaries.

Kathy,Yes, vocations are certainly a major reason for religious communities to sponsor schools, although historically, I don't think the drop in vocations is the primary reason sponsoring communities pull up stakes. Money and personnel shortages are the main culprits (although, as I demonstrated in my article, those reasons seem not to have applied in the case of NDHS). Anthony,Would you say more about the kinds of Catholic schools you've taught in? NDHS is a decidedly blue-collar school--this isn't to say it doesn't provide an excellent education, but the school doesn't pay well at all. Most of the teachers who stay on for decades at cute-rate salaries have done so because of their commitment to the kind of education the high school provides--namely, Catholic. I wonder if more "elite" (hate to use the word) Catholic schools have more of a problem with faculty whose commitment to their school's Catholicity is less than ideal.

Yes, I have taught in what some might consider more "elite" Catholic high schools. However, all these schools have a considerably large number of younger faculty who try out teaching for a few years. Although they may not be more than a third of the faculty at any one time, their youth and general lack of interest in the Catholic identity of the school definitely affects their students. In addition I have also had considerable dealings with other Catholic high schools (diocesan, inner-city etc), and they too tend to hire a large number of young teachers (early 20's, right out of college). Many of these men and women are also not particularly interested in the Catholic dimension of the school, though nevertheless do an excellent job.

Anthony, does the curriculum weave some religion into the disciplines taught? Or is it more or less ghettoized into a separate class? Does the school promote faith-based community/social projects? Just wondering what a school like the one you describe, good as it may be, really offers that's any different from a good public school with CCD "on the side."Thanks for letting us learn from your experience.

"Just wondering what a school like the one you describe, good as it may be, really offers that's any different from a good public school with CCD 'on the side.'"Egads--it has to. I have a hard time believing many Catholic high schools are weaving "the Catholic angle" into, say, their economics courses. At least not explicitly. But, of course, there's much more to a Catholic high-school experience than what takes place in the classroom: everything from prayer before class to weekly Masses, from student Eucharistic ministry programs to service-learning courses and retreats. These add up to a culture that public schools plus CCD will never provide.

Well, to be honest most classes don't begin with a prayer; fewer English teachers seem interested in topics like the "Catholic novel" or even taking faith seriously when analyzing a text. And in general, when you have an increasing number of non-practicing Catholics (or non-Catholics) on a faculty, faith is just not on the radar screen. And as far as social justice work? Sure, this happens but kids often don't see the connection between the works of charity and justice and their baptism, their identity as Catholics and what that demands of them.I may sound overly pessimistic but I am not trying to be. There is still lots of good things going on in Catholic high schools. However, in some ways many Catholic schools are where the universities/colleges were in the late 60's and early 70's. However, I think their identity is changing rapidly but most are not seeing this. Often the "Catholic" dimension comes out in a strong way when alumni dollars are on the line, but as far as the day to day life of the school, all is hanging in the balance

I don't think you're being overly pessimistic. I do, however, think it's important to point out that the school I reported on--quite typical for Chicago-area Catholic high schools--does practice all the items in my list, and more. Of course, the school can carry on these traditions because they were established by the Holy Cross priests. And NDHS, too, faces what all Catholic schools across the country must be facing: the generational drift from Catholic beliefs, practices, and culture.

Grant, I'm not trying slam Catholic high schools (though our experience with them was not good). Just sayin' that it sounds like, from Anthony's response, that "Catholicity" in some schools is pretty diluted.I also wonder if the "elite" angle is getting strengthened. Tuition at my kid's elementary school (in a rural area) was a couple thousand bucks a year. It would be interesting to look at the annual family income of kids who attend Catholic high schools as well as the level of "Catholicity" to get some kind of picture of what's going on across the board.My guess is that Catholic schools do better in predominantly Catholic countries where the state helps fund those schools. In the U.S., the system builds rancor between public schools--which claim private schools siphon money away and that's why they're falling apart--and parochial schools, whose parents complain that they pay public school taxes but receive none of the benefits.

Clarification: Our experience with Catholic elementary schools--not high schools--and the rather opaque process by which the diocese runs all its schools was not good.

Jean--didn't think you were slamming Catholic high schools (although how bad would one have to be to qualify as no better than public school plus CCD--in terms of Catholicity?). I have no doubt that Anthony's testimony is accurate (he's a very trustworthy guy); but there are many other schools that do it fairly well. A program like UND's ACE attempts to train and form the next generation of Catholic educators. Those efforts must be supported.

Just a note from the hinterlands (as one contributor to this blog referred to San Antonio)... Having taught in a Catholic high school here, and knowing others who did, I can attest that our reason for leaving was not due to any lack of commitment to passing on the tradition. We left because we simply could not afford to teach there. It wasn't a matter of being unwilling to make a small financial sacrifice; we were unable to pay our monthly bills and support our own children on a Catholic school salary. Those teachers who remained almost always had a second source of income: there were several retired military officers and a few women with CEO-type husbands. The financial situation may differ in other parts of the country, but I suspect that it is a nationwide problem. Are Catholic schools becoming enclaves for the elite? I just checked the website for a Marianist institution here in town and the yearly tuition is roughly $8000 ! Could the average middle-class family afford to send more than one child there at the same time?

In at least one Catholic high school (the only one in our immediate area, which one of my children attends) I too have some concern about the diluting of the 'Catholicity' and the slow evolution into an 'elite', 'Christian' school. Already it has followed others on the road from a 'Jesuit school' to a school that 'educates in the Jesuit tradition'. Most of my sons friends there are not Catholic, but Protestants who's parents are looking for an alternative to the public schools. Since they're also generally fairly well off, I think the school cannot help but be influenced by the need to cater somewhat to that potential pool by subduing its 'Catholicity'.In freshman year, only one semester of reglion class. Weekly mass (optional, and according to my son very lightly attended). No CCD/faith formation. I know many of the faculty are faithful and practicing, but some are not, and indeed some have even complained that they felt the Mass was too exclusive because non-Catholics were advised not to take communion (but to join in prayer and worship, more or less the standard thing one finds in a missalette), and this was 'exclusive' and made them feel left out or singled out. It's still a great school and I know the lay people now in charge care deeply about these things, but there's no question it's under the pressure of these modern times. The Catholicity is there, but a student has to take initiative and go after it / seek it out now, rather than being surrounded in it.I also completely agree with Joanne about the salary issues wrt attracting and holding quality teachers. In some cases it's good -- the teacher who stays there when they could easily get a better paying position is clearly motivated by something other -- but obviously it also deters a lot of otherwise excellent prospects.RM

During my years in an all-male Catholic high school (1962 - 1966), we had daily religion class, Mass on holydays, no community service experiences save one isolated instance, and (if I recall) little to no references to Catholic faith/religion in our other courses. Clergy made up, I'd guess, about half the faculty.My parents could not afford the full tuition and other expenses so I "work-studied" my first two years. A newspaper route paid my junior year, and a summer job in a fur store took care of my senior year.I'm not prepared to make a judgment either way on the issue of saving or closing Catholic schools, parochial and/or secondary. Just sharing my experience.

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