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Management by Dithering

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West Catholic.jpgOne of the lessons to be learned in the forced closure of dozens of Catholic schools in the region is the danger of institutional drift.

For decades, Catholic schools had a fixed and firm role in the world: education and faith formation of Catholic children.  They ran on models the church was comfortable with: parish-based education, overseen by the pastor and run by a religious order of nuns. 

The model worked well until it did not.  And the 'did not' period began in the late 1980's, most noticeably in Philadelphia.

The path of this decline was obvious to anyone who looked at the numbers: fewer Catholics = fewer Catholic children = lower enrollment in Catholic schools.

In the same way that fewer vocations = fewer clergy and nuns = replacement of nuns and clergy with more expensive lay teachers and staff.

The archdiocesan leadership responded by not responding -- at least not in any systemic way. As the trends began to accelerate, they began a round of annual closings, usually targeting elementary schools where enrollment dipped below 200 students.

Nominally in charge of deciding the fate of their parish's schools, pastors found themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place: keep it open and it would serve as a drain on diminishing parish resources; close it and become an enemy of parishioners -- a "Judas," in the words of one pastor I talked to.

By the first decade of the new century -- again, especially in Philadelphia -- the tension began to mount over the reality of where the schools were heading versus any decisive action from the archdiocese's leadership over what to do.

 

For a project, I talked to several dozen priests and Catholic educators in early 2010 and their frustration was palpable.

In the field, there were two theories on why the leadership had not acted to deal with the issue: One was that they were so consumed by other problems -- among them the priest sex scandals -- that they could not devote attention to the fate of the schools. The other was they were deliberately not taking action because they knew that eventually the situation would deteriorate to the point where wholesale closings would have to take place. As one pastor told me: "Not making a decision is making a decision." Perhaps there was also a hope that vouchers would arrive to rescue them.

Whatever the reason, it was management by dithering.

The situation changed mostly because of external pressures. Foundations and large givers who were supporters of Catholic education pressured Archbishop Justin Rigali to do something that resembled action. He responded by creating the Blue Ribbon Commission that issued its report last week, calling for the closing or merger of many dozens of schools, most of them in Philadelphia and inner ring suburbs. The closures include shuttering a number of beloved institutions, including West Catholic, Bonner and Prendergast, St. Hubert's and Conwell-Egan High Schools.

The Blue Ribbon Commission report (that's what they actually named it) isn't a solution to the problems of Catholic schools. It simply culls the herd -- dramatically and painfully.

It doesn't reposition Catholic education to face the new, more competitive environment brought about by demographic trends and the growth of (tuition free) charter schools.

It does make smart recommendations for improvements, though the implementation will be up to the existing leadership in the archdiocese and the parishes.

There is a successful model for the Catholic schools to follow: the private school model, with strong academic leadership, concentration on brand identity, and an active program of fundraising (so many graduates who have become successful in life). The archdiocesan high schools are trying to replicate this model, with uneven results. 

On the grade school level, an overworked pastor, with an advisory committee of lay people, and a former eighth-grade teacher recently promoted to principal won't do it, even if you guarantee them a number of refugees from closed schools to bolster income from tuition.

So, the real challenge of Catholic education lies ahead. It has to make fundamental changes in the way it operates, especially at the grade school level, or else the trend lines will continue downward.

Consolidation is only the first step. This will be a long and arduous journey.

-- Tom Ferrick

Photo: West Catholic High School

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