What’s driving the Catholic school renaissance

Travis Pillow

Catholic school reading instruction

Students take part in ACE Readers — an innovative program for Catholic elementary school children in Arizona and Florida.

Florida witnessed the birth of American Catholic education. The country’s first Catholic school was established in St. Augustine in 1606.

Now, its rebirth is also happening here, as new waves of philanthropy and innovation are fueling a renaissance in Catholic schooling all over the country.

Florida is home to six Notre Dame ACE Academies, a Cristo Rey high School still in the works and multiple forays into blended learning. As these new approaches take root, the headlines are shifting, from students leaving and schools closing to enrollment recovering and schools reinventing themselves.

A guidebook, soon to be released by Philanthropy Roundtable, whose first chapter is teased here, catalogs efforts to reverse decades of decline. Catholic schools saw their enrollment dwindle as middle-class families fled urban areas, a loss of low-cost labor from nuns and priests increased the costs of running schools, and charter schools created new, tuition-free competition.

Together, these factors produced dramatic Catholic-school enrollment declines. Between 2004 and 2014, 1,856 Catholic schools were closed or consolidated—a 23 percent loss. Thousands of Catholic schools continue to provide vital services. Continuing challenges, however, threaten their sustainability.

In an article for Philanthropy Magazine, authors Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson look at the role of philanthropic donors in helping Catholic schools become sustainable by attracting new students and supporters. At the same time, church leaders are becoming more open to new forms of school governance.

There is a consensus today that the traditional Catholic school run by the local church is unsustainable in many places. When The Philanthropy Roundtable asked Catholic-school donors about barriers to the sector’s growth, 69 percent named “diocesan bureaucracy.”

Understandably, many priests and bishops are hesitant about altering longstanding customs and formulas. But resistance seems to be softening. Unprecedented new arrangements for governing the Catholic schools that have been put into place in prominent locations like New York City and Philadelphia are speeding change. The question is no longer whether Catholic schools should be run differently; it’s about how.

To make this new structure work, a diocese must be willing to devolve most school-governing authority to the new management organization. In some cases a bishop grants complete operating and management authority over a set of schools to a board, foundation, or other entity that functions as the governing body. There are limits on the jurisdiction of these new operators, but many of them look and act a lot like the charter-school chains that set consistent standards across their campuses.

Catholic schools have a long history of providing character-based education and improving results for disadvantaged students, but the report suggests new organizational models can press this advantage further. This combination of tradition and nascent transformation can make them attractive to donors.

Most Catholic schools produce academic results that are notably better than conventional public schools serving the same children. Their clearest successes [lay] outside of academics, however, in encouraging constructive, pro-social behavior. Few inner-city Catholic schools are at the same academic standard of today’s very best charter schools. So there is lots of room for them to raise intellectual standards.

The report also notes there are avenues for philanthropists to support Catholic education that go beyond contributing to schools themselves. Groups like the American Federation for Children are helping make the Catholic-school renaissance possible, by pushing for voucher and private-school scholarship programs all over the country. States like Florida, Indiana and Arizona are home to some of the largest such programs in the country, which helps make them attract new efforts to enliven private and parochial schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of ACE Academies in Florida. The number is six, not seven.

Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is the largest private school choice program in the country. Step Up For Students, which employs the author of this post, helps administer the program.

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