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.

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.

Who is that Dalai Lama guy, anyway?

I’m not at all surprised that Americans don’t know much about religion in general.

But the findings of a new Pew Forum poll are still kind of shocking.

45% of Catholics don’t know that their faith teaches that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ during Holy Communion?

53% of Protestants cannot identity Martin Luther as the father of the Reformation?

47% of respondents know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist?

43% of Jews don’t know that Maimonides was Jewish? (This might not seem like a big deal to non-Jews, but M. was one of the most significant figures in Jewish history.)

What do people know?

The Pew Forum asked people 32 questions about faith. The highest average scores went to…atheists and agnostics. This isn’t terribly surprising, given that non-believers tend to be very educated, but it’s still pretty embarrassing for all those who call the U.S. a “Christian nation.”

Catholics, on average, got only 14.7 questions right — fewer than Jews, Mormons and Protestants, not to mention atheists and agnostics. On the one hand, this is surprising because Catholics are generally a very educated group.

On the other hand, it’s well know that the quality of Catholic education for those who do not attend Catholic schools has been quite low for decades. And it’s long seemed to me that Catholics, in general, know less about faiths other than their own than other religious groups. Many Catholics, in fact, know little about Protestants — what they believe and why.

What else? I’m kind of surprised that 62% of Americans know that most people in India are Hindus. I would have expected 30% based on the other results.

And 51% know that Joseph Smith was a Mormon? Could have been worse.

Here’s a Pew Forum summary:

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Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and Catholics. Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity. Holding demographic factors constant, evangelical Protestants outperform most groups (with the exceptions of Mormons and atheists/agnostics) on questions about the Bible and Christianity, but evangelicals fare less well compared with other groups on questions about world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Mormons are the highest-scoring group on questions about the Bible.

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:

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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.

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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:

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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.