Catholic schools, struggles and rewards

I sit in the pews of my parish and l listen to another homily/announcement. Our parish school, St. Stephen’s, will be closing its doors in June. Another Catholic school shuttered due to plunging enrollment and an inability to fiscally support itself. I sigh as I listen to the bleak news.
I am not connected to the school as closely as the parish. It is not my alumni or even my children’s. My youngest son did attend pre-K 3 and 4 there and had a wonderful experience. It was additionally interesting and enriching for the family as he brought a whole new vocabulary of religion and belief that had been missed as our other three girls had simply done daycare. Of course, listening to your religion through the eyes of a 4-year-old has its own interpretations.
At one dinner table conversation I was informed that “Jesus heals blondes.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t the blind, buddy?” I asked looking down at the other end of the dining room table.
“Nope. Blondes,” I was told assuredly.
But our three girls attend Merchantville and had a good education there, and my wife and I did not intend to break that track record for our youngest. So we transferred him over.
Listening to this news of St. Stephen’s closing I felt questions weighing on my mind. Had I done enough as a Catholic? Should I have supported my parish school better? What were my obligations to St. Stephen’s School? Have I compartmentalized my life (and my children’s life) so much that I have missed something critical to the growth of my/our faith? I liken CCD to the GED of high school diplomas. I would never allow my children to settle for this in their education. Why would I allow them to settle for this in their religious faith formation? Am I so compartmentalized between my public and religious life?
I am additionally conflicted as my professional world is in slight contradiction to Catholic schools today. Ironically we sit between Catholic Schools Week on the calendar and National School Choice Week. I sit in the pews as it’s announced that a Catholic school is closing and I am a charter school person who just opened up a new school last year. I have stood at the cutting edge of the charter school movement in New Jersey since its beginning. I have founded four separate charters in Camden. Every year we have expanded enrollment and have larger fiscal budgets. We have a specific mission and purpose and I am proud of the work we have done and accomplishments for the betterment of our Camden children.
I am also equally confronted with the reality in our urban environment that my successes lead to the struggles of the inner city Catholic schools in Camden. I am ever mindful that my expansion usually has a direct impact on the five Catholic schools that have bonded together under the Catholic Partnership Schools non-profit and the work of the Healey Foundation: St. Anthony’s, Holy Name, Sacred Heart, St. Joe’s Pro-Cathedral and St. Cecilia’s.
I have deliberated on this and even held conversations with the Catholic Partnership Schools. My proposal in the past has been to open up a charter school in place of a struggling Catholic school. Establish a landlord/tenant relationship. In so doing, you have changed the direction of the flow of money. As opposed to operating in a deficit and supporting a Catholic school, you bring the ledger from red to black, by charging the charter school appropriate market value. With the additional funding you then support a thriving Catholic community beyond the length of the charter school day. Whether that thriving community be a vibrant faith formation program, community outreach, adult education, etc. Pragmatically speaking, it can work and has worked.
At the same time, I am reminded by the stark words of Sister Karen Dietrich, executive director of the Catholic Partnership Schools. “Why should we sweep Jesus into the corner of the classroom?”
I have extended that question to why should Jesus only be aired out after the school day is over? What does that say about our faith? Shouldn’t we fight the fight for our faith as long as possible? When is pragmatic too pragmatic? Is it better to support struggling Catholic schools or pragmatically open up a charter school and, if so, when should this be done? These are the questions facing the leadership of our church. I don’t have the answers and am only left with more questions.
I do, however, have a 14-year-old daughter who began Paul VI High School this past fall as a freshman. I see her off every morning in a Catholic school uniform. She brings home a smile at the end of each day. I listen at the dinner table every night about her classes and once again there is a religious tone to the conversation which has been missing this past year from the Kindergartner who now attends public school. It’s quite a different conversation involving St. Augustine and the self-revelation of God. My family has grown this year and it’s a little different than a pre-K 4 theology who once brought binoculars to church in order to see God. But my home and heart feels fuller with Catholic schools once again in my life.

Joseph Conway is the founder of Camden’s Charter School Network.

Categories: Catholic School News

About Author