By Reporter
updated 3/24/2005 6:08:27 PM ET 2005-03-24T23:08:27

The challenge facing Catholic elementary schools can be reduced to one stunning fact: There are more nuns over 90 years old than under 50 years old.

For decades, Catholic schools could pay their bills because they didn’t have to pay the nuns who taught the classes, enforcing strict discipline and making up in devotion what they sometimes lacked in advanced educational degrees.

But nuns and priests have largely disappeared from the classroom. “In 8,000 (Catholic) elementary and high schools, there are no more than 8,000 priests and nuns teaching,” said Dr. James Youniss, a psychology professor at Catholic University in Washington who has spent years studying parochial schools.

As Catholics have moved into the mainstream, family sizes have dropped, shrinking the pool of potential priests and nuns. “Years ago, if a family had six kids with maybe five boys, the father could say ‘One of them goes to become a priest and I’ll still have grandchildren,’” said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Newark, N.J., diocese. “You don’t have that any more. Not everybody is as open to the idea of giving up having a family.”

Without that inexpensive teacher corps, Catholic schools have had to recruit educators. “We need to pay a living wage for their level of experience,” said Goodness. “And what sometimes happens, the cost of providing an education sometimes places it out of reach of the family.”

A wave of school closings
For inner-city Catholic elementary schools, the problem has reached a crisis level. In New York, 22 Catholic schools will close in Brooklyn, and 20 more are slated for closure elsewhere in the state. Eight schools are closing in St. Louis; 17 will shut their doors over the next two years in Detroit. It's a pattern repeated across much of the Northeast and Midwest.

Most are victims of rising costs and changing demographics. At St. Johns Academy in Hillsdale, N.J., for example, tuition is now $3,100. "If you have a good public school district, Catholic families, middle-class families will say, ‘I’m paying $8,000-$10,000 a year in taxes, my son or daughter should take advantage of the [public] school system,’” Goodness said.

As enrollment shrinks, more and more inner-city Catholic schools find themselves in trouble. “If you went back to 1880, and looked down the street, you might see German and Italian and Irish and Lithuanian parishes,” said Youniss. “You knew you didn’t need four schools, but the ethnic groups were so strong, they each opened up a school.”

But now the Catholic population of earlier generations, largely European and concentrated in distinct neighborhoods, has dispersed into the suburbs, replaced by newcomers from Latin America and Asia. “This new generation of immigrants is coming from countries that didn’t have a history of Catholic education, where they weren’t as tight a community,” said Youniss.

So the church is closing and merging schools, trying to form larger schools with a better chance of survival. But closing schools doesn’t mean that the survivors will thrive. “Closing haphazardly is one thing; closing strategically is another,” said the Rev. Joseph O’Keefe, dean of the school of education at Boston College.

A case study in New Jersey
St. Johns Academy in Hillsdale is not one of the 11 troubled Catholic schools targeted for merger or closing by the Newark diocese this year. But while St. Johns is successful, it is also emblematic of the challenge.

On a recent spring morning at St. Johns, the state-of-the-art computer lab was full of students learning to prepare graphics for their personal Web pages. The newly renovated library was clean, spacious and quiet. Down the hall, a science teacher showed off a large flat-screen monitor with an overlay allowing her to diagram biology lessons on-screen.

As principal Eileen McCabe and Msgr. Philip Morris, pastor of St. John the Baptist parish, strolled down the hallway, they were greeted by smiles and choruses of “Good morning” from the 400 pre-kindergarten to 8th grade students. McCabe proudly pointed out the shiny new elevator for disabled students and private offices where teachers can meet special needs students.

“We’re well aware we are training our future leaders,” said McCabe, who has spent 15 years leading St. Johns. “Our children are going to be running this country. They have to have a moral base.”

But a school needs money in order to teach morals. Fifteen years ago, St. Johns was in trouble, with a little over 200 students and steadily rising costs. Church leaders merged St. Johns and several nearby schools. The consolidation was not handled "in a sensitive way," McCabe said.

She quickly learned to get parents involved. "Parents vote with their feet."

As an example, McCabe cited a decision to change the dress code to a pullover sweater. "Some of the parents came to us and said their children complained that the pullovers would mess up their hair," McCabe said. "So we said OK, if you want a cardigan, that’s fine. They got results. There‘s no reason to say no to something like that unless you just want control."

That's key if Catholic schools are going to continue to find parents willing to pay higher tuition to give their children a better education, said Boston College's O'Keefe.

What's needed, O'Keefe argues, are well thought out plans to share administrative functions among several schools and to draw parents into active participation in running the school system. O'Keefe points to the challenge of school fundraising as an example. In order to qualify for grants, "You have to collect the data, and if you have a principal and eight teachers, who has the time?" O'Keefe said. "Our hope would be that benefactors, rather than writing a check to meet the [school's] operating deficit, would instead support a grants person for three years."

‘Pray, Pay and Obey’
Catholic dioceses have had centralized fundraising for a long time, but those efforts have been crimped by the priest sex abuse scandal and concern among lay Catholics about where their donations are going. At one time, lay Catholics trusted church leaders to use their donations wisely. “There was the idea of ‘Pray, Pay and Obey,’” said O’Keefe. “People aren’t going along with that any more. People want active participation. They’ll say, ‘I will fund this, but I need to see a business plan.'”

"You have to empower lay people," Catholic University's Youniss argues. "You've got to have a staff that runs the parish and somebody takes over things the priest used to do."

But that's not always welcome in the dioceses. Youniss cited the example of a friend who is the vice president of a large corporation, who went to his parish priest and offered his assistance managing the church's finances. While the priest was interested, the bishop intervened. "He did not want this guy to approach him as a financial expert," Youniss said. "He wanted to see him as a docile [parishioner], not as a peer who had made millions of dollars."

Help from vouchers
Some church leaders also look to increasing support for the idea of parental choice and school vouchers to boost Catholic schools.

"If the parents makes the decision to have a religious education, the state should help fund it," Newark spokesman Goodness argues. "If parents were given $3,000 for each kid, and asked 'do you want to send your child to this school or that school,' I think we would see a massive resurgence of people who want to have a faith-based education. It becomes affordable."

Another possibility is for Catholics to form their own charter schools, outside church control. “The bishop may be opposed to that, but so be it,” said Dr. Dean Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University who has studied church finances.

Others are less optimistic, saying many existing schools are in the wrong neighborhoods. “You would have to start from scratch, and I don’t think we have the resources,” Youniss said.

Many of the existing schools are in aging buildings, requiring extensive upgrades to allow the use of modern technology. “You have companies willing to donate computers, but we don’t have buildings where we can use them,” said O’Keefe.

Wealthy Catholics, “don’t want the kind of Catholic school their parents went to,” Youniss said. “They want a small student-teacher ratio, they want the same things public schools have. And that would be extremely expensive.”

Hurting the broader Catholic community
But if the schools do not survive, the Catholic community at large will suffer.

“We’re not just teaching religion,” said St. Johns principal McCabe. “We’re teaching our Catholic values, our respect for life, our respect for creation. When teaching social studies or science, our Catholic values are there.”

“Our schools are one of the most effective ways to pass on Catholic traditions,” said Msgr. Morris. “We have not found as effective an instrument for forming our Catholic people as we have in our schools.”

Adds Youniss: “ People meet through their kids, at school. Now imagine Catholic parishes without schools -- how are the people going to get connected to each other? The typical Catholic goes to church for one hour on Sunday. Without the schools, it's not a community any more.”

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