Promoting a private school (that happens to be Catholic)

I wish I had a weather-related post, since that’s all that anyone around here is talking about.

I had to chop away at the ice on my stairs this morning with a garden hoe. It was enough to make me miss shoveling snow.

But I don’t have any spiritual news related to the “wintry mix,” an expression I’ve quickly come to dislike.

So I’ll share a note that reader sent me.

The note was wrapped inside a flyer that Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains has sent out promoting their school.

The flyer notes many of Stepinac’s strengths: 100% college acceptance; SAT scores well above national average; Advanced Placement courses; 11:1 student/teacher ratio; wireless campus; state-of-the-art science labs; championship basketball and football teams; award-winning drama club; new sports complex with artificial turf coming 2011; and others.

But the flyer doesn’t promote or even mention anything about the school’s Catholic tradition or Catholic values.

The fact that Stepinac IS a Catholic school is obvious and the school is not trying to cover it up. The school is, after all, Archbishop Stepinac H.S. and people are asked to contact Sr. Margaret Morrissey for more information.

But, the reader notes, the flyer is not trying to sell Stepinac as a Catholic school but as a strong academic school that could be an alternative for anyone with the money (“only $7,700”).

The flyer states: “For more than 60 years, Archbishop Stepinac High School has shaped the lives of successful men by offering them a highly competitive academic program in a supportive, disciplined atmosphere. The faculty and staff are committed to academic excellence that is designed to prepare students for college and leadership roles. In addition to instilling values in their students, Stepinac offers an outstanding foundation for academic achievement.”

Disciplined atmosphere? Instilling values?

You kind of know what they mean.

“Can Catholic schools make it if they don’t promote that they’re Catholic,” the reader asks.

The Stepinac WEBSITE, by the way, promotes “Christian values and traditions.”

Archdiocese of NY sets out to ‘make all things new’

As is always the case when Catholic schools are about to close, a lot of people in the affected parishes are hurt, frustrated and disappointed.

Some school communities knew they were in trouble but hoped for the best.

A few thought they were doing okay and would be spared — at least for a while.

But when the announcement comes that your school is officially “at risk” and will likely lose its life-sustaining subsidy from the archdiocese, it’s a shock and difficult to absorb.

The archdiocese has, of course, closed dozens of schools in recent years. After each round of closings, school communities hope that the dust will settle for a while. But these are tough times economically, enrollments are down, and Archbishop Dolan has made clear his belief that in order to strengthen and promote healthy schools, the church has to stop subsidizing those that can’t make it on their own.

In fact, in his recent column, Dolan says that he’s prepared to face the big challenges facing the Catholic Church in New York.

As he puts it:

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At times, I am tempted to run from all of this, to avoid it, to deny that we need any planning, or that we even need to ask realistic questions and come to a clear direction with consequent tough decisions about the future. I’m tempted to say, “Forget about all this planning for the future. Let’s just keep things as they are and let nature take its course.” That is tempting; that is comfortable. That’s also irresponsible, lazy, destructive and dumb.

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Dolan writes about a new pastoral planning process within the archdiocese that will tackle a lot of the short-term and long-term challenges that priests and others have been talking about for, literally, decades. He’s calling the process “Making All Things New.”

I can’t tell you how many times priests and church officials and active laypeople have lamented to me that the archdiocese has avoided making tough decisions. The archdiocese has, for instance, been very quiet about its shrinking pool of (aging) parish priests and what this will mean for parish life in the not-too-distance future.

Cardinal Egan oversaw a much-hyped “realignment” of parishes that many observers saw as a minimal, let’s-wait-on-the-tough-decisions package.

But Dolan says it’s time to look at the Big Stuff:

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Let’s face it, we’ve got some tough decisions to make in the years ahead: our people are “on the move” and populations are shifting; parishes in wonderful neighborhoods that 25 years ago were teeming with large, young families are now quiet and empty, while outlying areas cannot build churches big enough or fast enough; older parishes with extensive facilities struggle to keep them in repair as their numbers shrink, while other parishes cannot find room for meetings, education and worship; the number of priests goes down, so we have to be creative and careful in their assignments, so that all can benefit from their essential ministry; and the sluggish economy and the demands on our resources make it imperative that we take stewardship of our finances, properties and buildings very seriously.

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One more note: It will be interesting to see how Dolan reacts to those parents and school communities that will inevitably resist the closing of their schools. When Egan closed schools and parishes, he generally avoided them and did not answer criticisms in public.

Many priests have noted that a more pastoral approach from the Archbishop of NY could do wonders.

Are charter schools competition for Catholic schools?

When Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., allowed the city a couple of years ago to convert several troubled Catholic schools into charter schools, many were surprised.

To save the schools, Wuerl was allowing them to give up their Catholic identity.

Now Archbishop Dolan is planning to launch a bunch of initiatives to save Catholic education in New York. He announced his intentions during a recent speech, printed as an op-ed in the NY Daily News:

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We must rediscover a sense of boldness. We’ve got to get dramatic. We’ve got to have some fresh thinking. Our new strategic initiative, Pathways to Excellence, is going to do just that. Let me give you the broad outlines of what’s to come.

First, I feel that the greatest priority of my work is to find, train and keep our principals – because if you have a first-class principal, you have a first-class school.

Second, we’re going to propose entering into partnership with our Catholic colleges and universities. Unfortunately very often we Catholics don’t have our act together, so that we don’t ask our universities to work with our high schools or high schools to work with our grade schools.

Third, we have to take a look at questions of governance. We have to ask the question of whether the current model of Catholic education is the best one. Now, most of our schools are parochial – run by a parish. More and more pastors, parents and principals are telling me that those days are over. We need a shared responsibility for recruitment, maintenance and subsidies of our schools.

Next, we need to face that some schools will probably have to close – not to cut away further at Catholic education, but to strengthen it in the long run. I’ll borrow from Jesus; he observes that the best way to get a vine to grow and grow strong is sometimes to prune back a branch.

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Notice, no word of charter schools.

The Economist magazine, of all place, notes that charter schools represent a new, secular competition for Catholic schools:

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Overwhelmed by its burdens, the Washington, DC, archdiocese converted seven of its schools to charter status in 2008. This means that the taxpayer picks up the bill and students pay nothing, but that the school can no longer operate as a religious establishment.

Could this work in New York? Archbishop Dolan rules it out, as he believes the Catholic element is what makes his schools succeed. Unfortunately for the Catholic schools, charters have adopted many of the same practices, including uniforms, discipline and the promotion of a clear set of values. That means that they have started to attract the pupils who might have gone to Catholic schools. “They are killing us,” says Sister Catherine.

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That’s Sister Catherine Hagan, the principal of St. Mark the Evangelist School in Harlem.

It’s very interesting, at least to me, that charter schools are adopting some of the qualities that have made Catholic schools unique and successful (without the Catholic part, of course).

One more aside: Dolan also wants to focus on enrolling more Hispanic kids in his schools.

In demographic terms, this would seem to be a key to the long-term health of Catholic education in New York.

Only 4 percent of Hispanic kids now attend Catholic schools, which is kind of amazing.