Say goodbye to parish schools and hello to regionalization

When I was still on the beat, I wrote quite a few articles about the Archdiocese of New York’s plans to “regionalize” Catholic schools.

The idea was to end the old one parish/one school model and have all parishes — including those without their own school — take on administrative and financial responsibility  for the schools in their region. A lot of people hoped that this approach to running Catholic schools will give all parishes — all church-going Catholics, in fact — a stake in the future of Catholic education.

Something had to change, as all the school closings of recent years have shown.

After numerous delays, regionalization is happening. The archdiocese recently announced that all schools will be grouped into one of 10 regions — including Rockland, Central Westchester, and Northern Westchester/Putnam.

The Rockland group will be one of three that will begin operating next September. The others will take shape in the fall of 13.

Boards of trustees will be appointed to run each region, with clergy holding a majority on each board. ALL parishes will contribute financially to their region. There will be “a new parish assessment for schools based on a sliding scale,” according to Catholic New York.

Board members in the three model regions will receive training beginning in January. School principals will also be trained on how to work with the new boards.

Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, said that Archbishop Dolan is on board. “He understands completely that what cannot happen is that we remain with the status quo,” McNiff told CNY.





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:


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.


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:


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.


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.

A new approach to running Catholic schools in New York

Well, the Archdiocese of NY is finally preparing to take a big step to improve the financial health of its school system.

No, I’m not talking about closing more schools — which is also going to happen.

I’m talking about breaking the traditional link between parishes and parish schools, which puts tremendous financial pressure on many parishes to support money-losing schools. Many pastors have told me over the years about the tensions created by having to prop up schools.

The archdiocese is moving toward a new regional system that will allow groups of parishes — led by new regional boards of education — to oversee groups of Catholic schools.

The church outlined what’s coming in a new report released today, which describes a three-year period of planning and reconfiguring things. Archbishop Dolan has been talking about this for months, but now the process, it appears, is underway.

What is certain to get the most attention, at least for a while, will be point 1.iii on page 18: “Recommend schools to close or merge for the 2011-12 school year and provide suitable alternative Catholic school options to affected families.”

The archdiocese has closed dozens of schools in recent years. Are we talking about 5 more? 10? 20? Who knows.

But the real plan, the report makes clear, is to provide a LONG-TERM foundation for Catholic education in the 10 counties of the archdiocese. This means not only coming up with a new regional system for operating remaining schools, but also improving and modernizing academic standards and facing the bedrock question of how to best give Catholic students a firm Catholic identity.

It’s all in the report, Pathways to Excellence. You can read it HERE.

Dolan: Catholics must ‘recover nerve’ to support Catholic schools

While it’s appeared in recent years as if Catholic schools were heading toward irrelevance — or semi-extinction — because of financial woes, Archbishop Dolan is pledging to refocus on Catholic education.

In a strongly worded article in the Jesuits’ America magazine, Dolan makes the case that Catholic life is largely dependent on the existence of healthy Catholic schools. As a result, he writes, all Catholics — not only those with children of school-age — must take responsibility for Catholic education.

He writes: “Nowadays, Catholics often see a Catholic education as a consumer product, reserved to those who can afford it. The result is predictable: Catholics as a whole in the United States have for some time disowned their school system, excusing themselves as individuals, parishes or dioceses from any further involvement with a Catholic school simply because their own children are not enrolled there, or their parish does not have its own school.”

Dolan says that while Catholic schools were once needed to protect students from anti-Catholicism, they are now needed to protect them from secularization.

He writes:


Today’s anti-Catholicism hardly derives from that narrow 19th-century Protestantism, intent on preserving its own cultural and political hold. Those battles are long settled. Instead, the Catholic Church is now confronted by a new secularization asserting that a person of faith can hardly be expected to be a tolerant and enlightened American. Religion, in this view, is only a personal hobby, with no implications for public life. Under this new scheme, to take one’s faith seriously and bring it to the public square somehow implies being un-American. To combat this notion, an equally energetic evangelization—with Catholic schools at its center—is all the more necessary.


Dolan challenges Catholics to get on board without mincing words.

How about this: “It is time to recover our nerve and promote our schools for the 21st century. The current hospice mentality—watching our schools slowly die—must give way to a renewed confidence.”

Or this: “Have we Catholics lost our nerve, the dare and dream that drove our ancestors in the faith, who built a Catholic school system that is the envy of the world?”

Dolan is gradually unveiling a new approach to the schools that he calls “Pathways to Excellence.” He hasn’t released much info yet, but he wrote in a May column in the NY Post that, mostly likely, some schools would be closed, some would be merged and some new schools would be opened.

I wrote a couple of years ago that the Archdiocese of NY was planning to put groups of parishes in charge of single schools, moving away from the traditional one-parish, one-school approach. We’ll see if this new strategy is part of Dolan’s plans.

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:


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.


Notice, no word of charter schools.

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


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.


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.

When non-Catholics support the mission of Catholic education

Remember when that atheist fellow gave a bunch of money to New York’s Catholic schools a few years ago?

I came across a great quote from the guy, Robert W. Wilson:


I remember the first time I had lunch with Cardinal Egan. We were finishing up, and he said, ‘Well, now that you’ve given all this money to our schools, I should try to convert you.’ I said to him, ‘Well, Cardinal, if you do, I suppose I should try to convert you. The only problem is that if I succeed, you’ll lose your job.’


I came across Wilson’s great one-liner in a very interesting feature story from Philanthropy magazine about non-Catholics who give big money to Catholic schools.

about_studentsIn Wilson’s case, he was  won over by a simple fundraising letter from the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which made the case that Catholic schools get results, but many kids can’t afford to go.

As a result, he’s written checks for more than $30 million since 2007.

Whoever wrote that fundraising letter should get a raise, no?

I found a good interview with Wilson here.

The Philanthropy article also profiles Jewish and secular individuals and foundations who give big bucks to Catholic education because of the education (as opposed to the Catholic part).

One such fellow is Stephen Schwarzman, a Jew and a very successful investor who serves on the board of the Archdiocese of NY’s Inner-City Scholarship Fund. (UPDATE: Turns out that while Schwarzman is a major donor to the ICSF, it’s his wife, Christine, who serves on the board.)

He’s committed to assuring that children from low-income families can attend Catholic schools for the full 12 years, so they don’t have to worry about losing scholarships mid-way through.

He tells Philanthropy:


I have always been a big supporter of education in general. I’m especially impressed with the commitment the Archdiocese of New York has made to educate more than 40,000 inner-city students with a solid values-based academic program. They have achieved fantastic results—98 percent of the seniors graduate, and 97 percent of these graduates plan to pursue post-secondary education—especially for a student population that’s 93 percent minority, where 50 percent live near or below the poverty line.


Photo: Inner-City Scholarship Fund

100 days for Dolan? Cut the cake!

If I’m counting correctly, tomorrow is Archbishop Dolan’s 100th day as the Big Cheese.

But it seems as if he’s been here longer, doesn’t it?

For the first 50 days or so, Dolan was EVERYWHERE. I heard him speak so many times that I could almost anticipate his next joke about food (but I still laughed every time).

So, can we draw any conclusions after the Magic Mark of 100 days? Not much that we couldn’t draw after the first 48 hours or so.

Tim Dolan is what he is. First and foremost, it seems to me, he is an evangelist. He is a walking, talking, joking, blushing, unapologetic defender of the faith.

He wants to bring all those lapsed Catholics out there back into the fold. In his latest column for Catholic New York, he writes:


Yep, it hardly takes courage to brag that you “used to be a Catholic, but have now ‘grown up’ and are enlightened.” Big deal. Join the crowd. The audience will applaud. The critics will rave about your book. The talk shows will invite you on as a star. You can snicker about the Church and get laughs and cheers.

I wonder, though, if the really enlightened, mature, liberated, brave, prophetic folks are those who are humbly, joyfully and gratefully confident in their Catholic faith, who are well aware of the Church’s struggles and imperfections, but still eager to live it sincerely, and pass it on to their kids and those they love.


Dolan has said that he would spend his first year or so traveling around the archdiocese and talking to people, listening, getting a feel for things. It’s a common approach for new leaders from out of town, and it makes sense.

New York isn’t the Midwest, after all.

In the meantime, he’s gotten a ton of press and media, virtually all positive. A lot of New Yorkers, Catholic and otherwise, already have a better feel for him than they ever did for Cardinal Egan (even though Dolan has largely stayed clear of contentious public policy debates like gay marriage).

Priests I’ve spoken to love the guy. So do others who work for the archdiocese.

After one recent Dolan appearance, an insider wrote to me: “As usual, he hit a home run. What a batting average…”

The guy is also tireless. It seems that everyone I talk to has gotten a call from the Archbishop of New York or at least knows someone who has.

Does these mean that Dolan has already joined the pantheon of the Giant Archbishops of New York — alongside Hughes, Spellman, O’Connor, etc.?

Not yet. We don’t have any real idea how he intends to make his mark. Sure, he will continue to evangelize, but what will he do about the priest shortage? About the increasingly tense immigration debate? About the financial challenges still facing Catholic schools? About all the bioethical debates already underway and yet to come? About the growing threat of secularism?

Time will tell. And we’re talking about more than 100 days.

Archbishop of DC takes the tough questions on Catholic schools

No, he’s not yet a cardinal, but Washington, D.C. Archbishop Donald Wuerl is a major Catholic figure in the U.S.

And there he was Saturday, in the middle of a room full of religion journalists, shaking hands and making chit-chat. He looked perfectly at ease — and stayed that way even when he faced a few tough questions.

He came to the Religion Newswriters Association get-together to talk about Catholic schools — the threat they face and how to save them. Catholic schools are “endangered,” he said, but they work.

“We can’t walk away from Catholic schools,” he told us.

vidcap_nc8popewuerl0402.jpgWuerl’s basic point was this: Catholic schools must be saved, but the Catholic Church can’t do it alone. The wider community — and government — must help, particularly in inner cities where children need an educational alternative.

Wuerl makes many of the same arguments in a new pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Washington.

He told us about a new tuition-assistance program in the archdiocese that has raised $2 million from the community, helping to keep 445 students in Catholic schools. It’s a start, but the real need was more like $18 million.

He told us about a similar program he had started in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, supported by businesses, foundations and other faith leaders, which today keeps about 1,000 inner-city kids in Catholic schools. The vast majority of them are not Catholic.

“More and more our our neighbors recognize the unique gift that Catholic education is to the community,” he said.

Wuerl made the expected call for government support of Catholic education, always a sticky subject. “I think it is a simple question of justice,” he said.

The archbishop of Washington is a soft-spoken fellow. He’s the kind of guy you have to stay quiet to hear. But he gets his point across. He was gracious and funny and confident enough to mix it up with a bunch of newspaper people.

Asked about possible savings that might result from merging dioceses (and presumably having fewer bishops in charge of them), he said: “You get a lot of mileage out of one bishop.”

Wuerl and Mark Gray, a Catholic Church researcher at Georgetown, shared the usual reasons for why Catholic schools are failing: economics; population changes; competition, staffing.

Asked if the growing numbers of Catholic immigrants would help, Wuerl said: “They come here precisely because they don’t have the resources.”

Gray said that in some respects, Catholic families are more like everyone else: “It’s definitely a trend, not only having fewer children, but waiting longer to have children.”

Wuerl wrapped things up by talking about visiting a school and asking fourth-graders why they attend a Catholic school. One of them said “I come to this school to get an education and get a life.”

Archdiocese of Washington gives away 7 failing schools

At a time when Catholic education is struggling just about everywhere, here’s an interesting development from Washington:

Seven Catholic schools are becoming secular charter schools next fall.

The Wash Post explains:

The Catholic schools, to be renamed and switched to a nonreligious academic program, will be operated by Center City Public Charter Schools, the nonprofit group selected by the Archdiocese of Washington. The group is an offshoot of the Center City Consortium, set up by the Archdiocese in 1995 to help financially fragile urban Catholic schools pool administrative costs and fundraising. Even with the consortium arrangement, the Archdiocese said, falling enrollment and mounting costs would force the closure of the schools unless they were converted to charters.

Earlier this year, Pearl River native Mary DeTurris Poust wrote an article for Our Sunday Visitor about the challenge posed to Catholic schools by charter schools.

After all, charter schools look and sound like private schools. But they get tax dollars and don’t have to charge tuition.

“You basically have an entrepreneurial, semi-private school that’s just absent any religious affiliation competing with the Catholic schools that have to charge tuition to make it, so it’s hard to compete on a level footing when the cost is zero to the parent,”  Father Ronald Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education Leadership Program at Notre Dame, told her.

Another perspective on Catholic schools

The Archdiocese of NY recently announced that it would close 6 more Catholic schools

One Catholic teachers union in New York is striking, days before the pope comes. The other, larger union went on strike for the first time in decades before settling a new contract a few days ago.

It might be worth reading some recent comments about Catholic education from Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. (who will begin hosting the pope in about 2 hours).

bishopwuerl.jpgIn advance of the papal visit to D.C., Wuerl met with editors of the Washington Post and Washington Times.

Wuerl has been under tremendous heat in D.C. for proposing that seven Catholic schools be transformed into secular, taxpayer-funded charter schools. He says that the Catholic school system cannot hold up without government support (private-school vouchers).

He told the Post:

We simply don’t have the resources to keep all those schools open. We have exhausted the resources available to us.

And the Times:

The whole idea of vouchers is that the money that we all pay in taxes for education should follow the child. The child is being educated at the school the parents decide on. Until that happens, we’re just going to gradually see a continual challenge to the ability of the church to sustain all of these schools, particularly in the poorest, urban areas.

It’s no wonder that the Washington Post editorialized yesterday: “Pope Benedict XVI should address the crisis in U.S. Catholic schools.”

Maybe the pope will do just that when he addresses Catholic education officials on Thursday.