Pope Francis Is Visiting a Catholic School. Maybe You Should, Too
Today, Pope Francis will visit Our Lady Queen of Angels school in East Harlem in New York City. It will be a bright spot at the end of a rough couple of decades for Catholic schools in the United States. In the last ten years alone, enrollment in Catholic schools has dipped from over 2.4 million students to just over 1.9 million students.
I taught at an urban, historically African-American Catholic school, St. Jude Educational Institute on the west side of Montgomery, Alabama. After 76 years of operation it closed its doors 2014, following the path of many other inner-city Catholic schools.
You should be worried about urban Catholic schools closing, as they have for decades succeeded where other schools have failed. Surveying the research, economist Derek Neal wrote, “Although many questions remain unanswered, one result seems clear. Black and Hispanic students in large cities often have the most to gain from private schooling, in particular, Catholic schooling.”
But the story of Catholic schools in America today is not all doom and gloom. Echoing what my good friend Andy Smarick wrote in National Review earlier this week, there are in fact, several promising trends in contemporary Catholic education. I’d like to highlight three:
- Innovative management strategies. Many dioceses have not kept up with the changing times. Some still rely on parish-based schools tied to neighborhoods whose demographics of both children and parishioners are changing. Others have decided to keep open a large number of under-enrolled schools rather than consolidate resources into a smaller number of more viable schools. Our Lady Queen of Angels is a great example of a school under creative leadership. It is part of the Partnership for Inner City Education, a management consortium of 6 urban Catholic schools in New York. The partnership has a laser-like focus on providing a great education for low-income students, and supplements the Archdiocese, which already has its hands full managing its diverse portfolio of schools. Organizations like this (which already exist in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and elsewhere) can help bring a much more coherent strategy to urban Catholic education and stretch limited dollars the furthest.
- Blended Learning. Multiple Catholic-school organizations have been working on blended learning models, which can help schools control personnel costs, a huge driver in the increase in the cost of Catholic schooling as the teacher workforce has shifted from priests and religious sisters to lay men and women. Seton Education Partners has implemented a blended learning model at six Catholic schools in San Francisco, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. The University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education has piloted a blended learning school in Seattle. Even the much-vaunted Cristo Rey network has started a blended learning school in San Jose, California. These could change the delivery model of Catholic education, lower its cost, and make it available for more and more students.
- School Choice. Probably the single most promising development in Catholic education over the past two decades has been the emergence and growth of private school choice programs. Catholic schools in Indiana, Florida, and Wisconsin have swelled with students attending with state support in the form of a school voucher, tuition tax credit scholarship, or education savings account. Nationwide, enrollment in school choice programs has grown from less than 30,000 students in 2000 to over 300,000 today. That said, if more low- and middle-income students are going to be able to take advantage of a Catholic school education, more states will need to create or expand these programs.
It was the prophet Jeremiah who said “in this place of which you say it is a waste, there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness. The voices of those who sing.” For years now, many observers have written off Catholic schools as dying institutions that had failed to keep up with the changing times. But across America, voices are singing.