Our process to create a Vision for Catholic schools is proceeding very well. During the first week of May, we began a series of “Visioning Sessions” to engage with various stakeholders in our schools. On Tuesday, May 3rd, I had the profound opportunity to listen to over 200 pastors, principals, and presidents discuss the future and welfare of our Catholic schools. A similar session with over 50 participants took place in Dayton on May 4th. On Tuesday of last week, over 300 school and parish leaders gathered at Elder to discuss our schools. This was followed by a Visioning Session with school and parish leaders in Dayton on Wednesday. Overall, I was encouraged by the ideas and conversations that took place. I look forward to offering a complete re-cap of our Visioning Sessions once we have complied and studied all of the collected data.
In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to offer some reflections on school closures and consolidations. As I have spoken with people about our schools, I often receive questions about when and why we should close Catholic schools. I have already stated that the purpose of our vision is not to close schools. In fact, our hope is quite the opposite; we hope to examine new forms of support to maximize the future viability of our schools. However, closures are a reality facing Catholic schools nationwide, and it is worth spending some time focusing on the various factors that contribute to the closing of a school.
Nationwide, a number of schools have closed and consolidated. The vast majority of these institutions have been parish-based elementary schools. Many schools have experienced prolonged periods of declines in enrollment. Over the past 9 years, our schools have lost over 460,000 students nationally (McDonald & Schultz, 2009).
There are many reasons for these declines in enrollment and subsequent school closures. In their book “Weathering the Storm” (2009), authors Leonard DeFiore, John Convey, and Merylann Schuttloffel identify the various reasons why schools close. These reasons include factors that are controllable (to a certain extent) versus those with which we have limited control. All-in-all, these reasons include the following:
1.) Weak Catholic identity (a failure to provide authentic Catholic teachings and/or a genuine Christ-centered environment)
2.) Academic problems (inability to sustain a strong academic program)
3.) Weak leadership (poor leadership on the part of the pastor and/or principal)
FACTORS OF LIMITED CONTROL:
1.) Declining demographics (a decline in the number of school-age children)
2.) Family financial circumstances (inability of school families to afford tuition)
3.) Strong competition (competition from other Catholic schools, charter schools, public schools, etc.)
4.) Lack of value in Catholic education on the part of parents
It is important to note that each of these factors can contribute to an overall lack of funds within a Catholic school. The top reason that Catholic schools close is because they are out of money; a lack of funds can be propelled by any of the conditions listed above.
A key focus of our vision for schools is ensuring that schools are sustainable for the future. We must ensure that our schools posses adequate funding to ensure high quality programs, yet we also must make sure that families are able to afford the costs of tuition. We must seek to control the controllable factors that influence our schools; through collaboration, professional development, and appropriate oversight, we should ensure that our schools posses strong Catholic identities. We must formulate plans to address the factors of limited control as best we can.
School closures are intensely difficult and can create great trauma. As we move forward into the future, it is my hope that a school will close only after we have exhausted every conceivable avenue of restoring that school to viability. In some cases, we will need to closely examine the funding practices in place, the quality of the leadership, and the school’s strategic plan for the future.
We all suffer when one of our schools is suffering. With careful and collaborative planning, it is our hope that our vision will support our schools in new ways.