Back to School, But Not Business as Usual

Our Jewish neighbors might have it right: their “new year,” as you know, begins in the fall.
In reality, it does for us as well, because it’s back to normal! Our parishes begin humming again as the grade school opens and religious education programs (I’ll write of those next column) commence.
So, this is a good time to welcome our students back, and to thank our parents (and, in many cases, grandparents), for sacrificing to send their children to our Catholic elementary and high schools.
That gratitude goes as well to our parish priests and their parishioners, our consecrated women and men religious, our devoted principals and teachers, the generous benefactors of our renowned schools, and the archdiocesan school office, led by Dr. Timothy McNiff, who serve our acclaimed system of Catholic schools.
This academic year will be a pivotal one for our schools, as our promising Pathways to Excellence begins to kick in. As you know, the crux of this plan is an energetic move to more intense collaboration among our schools, resulting in regionalization. Yes, some schools will merge and consolidate, meaning some sites will close. This delicate process will be quarterbacked by regional boards of pastors, educators, parents, and community leaders. Because we want to do this judiciously, we are starting with three pilot regional boards: Staten Island, Rockland County, and Northwest/South Bronx. Thanks to these courageous pioneers!
So, perhaps it’s good, this season of fresh starts, to rehearse the philosophy behind our Pathways to Excellence. Why are we making changes?
Here are our suppositions…

I. We are passionately committed to Catholic education! They are indeed our “pearl of great price” as “nobody does it better” in the education of minds, souls, hearts, and character of our children and youth.
You probably saw the data published over the summer. Once again, Catholic school students outscore pupils in other schools in math, science, and reading. And, other research shows that they are the most effective means—after the family—in the religious formation of our kids.
They are worth fighting for, against all the odds. And the goal of our Pathways to Excellence, recall, is to strengthen them, improve an already sterling product, and to increase their accessibility, affordability, and availability, enrolling even more students, even though the number of schools will go down.

II. Supposition number two is that this “gold standard” of Catholic education has towering challenges. To name just a few: a decline in enrollment, escalating costs, some dilution in Catholic identity, and buildings that need repair. Little comfort that most other schools, public and private, have more of the same problems.

III. So, we can’t do “business as usual.” To do nothing bold about our beloved schools is to place them on hospice. Some want us to just coast, observing “can’t we just remain as we are, letting the struggling schools close, and keeping the ones that are succeeding?” That’s educational Darwinism,” a “survival of the fittest” that I could not tolerate, could you? Then, in a decade or so, when our cherished schools are mostly gone, we’d all say, “Why didn’t we do something earlier?”
Well, we are, because we can’t do business as usual!

IV. The fourth assumption is that we need a creative new model for our Catholic elementary schools. See, we still mostly work on a parish grade school model. But, the experts tell us that the days of one parish running its own independent school are quickly coming to an end.
By the way, I’m not all that happy about this. I love our parochial schools. The genius, historically, of our Catholic schools is that they were parish-based. I wish they still could be, and, even in our new approach, some still can. But, we are realists, and we know that “it takes a village” to run a school, not just a single parish.

V. This means that every Catholic, the entire Catholic family, and, please God, the wider community (as is a grand tradition here in the archdiocese, thanks to the work of my predecessors, especially Cardinal Egan) must rise up to support Catholic schools!
In practice, this means that every parish will have a school! Most probably, that school will not be on the grounds of the parish, but every parish will support and promote its own regional school!
Yes, the archdiocese will continue its massive subsidies to these schools. Last year, the archdiocese spent $48,000,000 on struggling parishes and schools. But, we can’t continue such huge expenses, as other critical ministries are pinched, and as we’re reluctant, understandably, to go into deficits.
Thus, parishes without their own school and their property, and thus free from the crushing expenses of administering their own schools (and, in many cases, earning revenue from the former school buildings and convents) will have a financial duty to their regional school.

VI. And, our final working assumption is that our lay faithful must take ownership of the schools. The days of expecting the pastor, in concert with the principal, to do-it-all are over. Competent boards of professionals, educators, parents, and local leaders are the answer.
The priests are hardly pushed aside. They can devote their energy to sacraments, liturgy, and catechesis at the school, vigorously assuring a robust Catholic identity, and one of the pastors in the given regions would be designated the “responsible parish priest” on the board.

There you have it. I hope you share my excitement and hope.
Does this plan have all the answers? Nope!
Are there still a lot of issues to be worked out? Yep!
Will all of this happen immediately? Nope!
Will our people have an input? You bet—the plan’s based on that.
Will some of our schools have to close? ‘Fraid so…but probably the ones that were going to anyway.
Will this be the silver bullet that solves all the problems? Hardly!
But, it sure is a pathway to excellence, and I’m grateful you’re willing to walk it with me.