Catholic schools seek sustainability solutions

| November 17, 2010 | 0 Comments

Hand raisedIn the past six years, Pope John Paul II Catholic School in northeast Minneapolis has made a tremendous turn-around.

It faced near-closure in 2004, but today it runs its budget in the black (thanks, in part, to a pastor with a business degree), serves as a model for multi-age classrooms and has made a commitment to strong Catholic identity initiatives, for which it earned a national award in April.

Still, the kindergarten to eighth-grade school is among the Catholic schools undergoing an “urgent review” as part of the archdiocesan Strategic Plan for Parishes and Schools, which Archbishop John Nienstedt announced Oct. 16-17.

Under the plan, some parishes received detailed directives to merge, cluster or collaborate with others nearby. Schools were not given directives as specific as that.

Instead, the plan launched a process for further school review, with local leaders deciding the schools’ futures with additional input from their stakeholders, including parish and school communities. Under the plan, all schools are called into greater collaboration, ongoing evaluation and greater accountability. Possible outcomes include schools becoming stronger in key areas, engaging in structured collaboration with other Catholic schools, or closing if they are determined to be unsustainable in the long term.

These reviews are an integral part of meeting Archbishop Nienstedt’s vision of having strong, sustainable Catholic education, said Catholic schools superintendent Marty Frauenheim.

“We want to grow Catholic education throughout all parts of the archdiocese, and we can’t do that unless we have a good plan,” she said.

One school undergoing urgent review, Pope John Paul II Catholic School, was willing to talk to The Catholic Spirit about the process it is going through.

Assigning school categories

As part of the process, the plan assigned schools within the archdiocese to one of four categories: urgent review schools, sustainability review schools, shared resource discussion schools and schools where there is no change at this time.

Schools assigned to urgent review, like Pope John Paul II, must complete an evaluation of their school’s long-term viability and present their recommendations to a review board. A final decision on the recommendation will be made in January.

Schools are evaluated in four categories that the archdiocesan Strategic Plan identifies as criteria for long-term viability: Catholic identity, academic programming, financial management, and community outreach or development.

These marks were already part of a sustainability review process several schools used prior to the archdiocesan Strategic Plan.

At this time, the archdiocese is not making public the names or number of other schools in any category. However, schools themselves were to inform their communities and stakeholders of their status in October.

Catholic Schools Office staff members and Parish Services Team members are assisting schools through the process.

“We’ve really tried to make it be about the schools having the opportunity to do the work we’ve asked of them without the guessing game out there as to who’s in what category, and what does that mean,” Frauenheim said.

The January deadline for schools undergoing urgent reviews allows Archbishop Nienstedt and others adequate time to review the information the schools present to determine if the schools have a plan for long-term viability. Some local school leaders may recommend that their schools should close at the end of the 2010-2011 school year. School leaders that recommend their schools stay open must prove the schools are sustainable for the long term.

“We’re very hopeful that they can find a way to meet challenges there, but we’re also realistic enough to know that for some of them that have been teetering,

. . . they may determine that they’re not sustainable . . . and they need to close,” Frauenheim said.

If it is determined that a school should close, parents, students, teachers and staff would have time to look for a new school or jobs. The archdiocese will assist families in finding another Catholic school which meets their needs.

“The biggest gift we can give families is for them not to be unsure of where their school is,” Frauenheim added.

Hope in northeast

Father Glen Jenson, Pope John Paul II’s canonical administrator, said northeast Minneapolis needs the consolidated school, which serves 11 parishes: All Saints, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Boniface, St. Clement, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, St. Hedwig, St. Maron, Holy Cross, St. Lawrence and Our Lady of Lourdes.

Father Jenson expects its review presentation to demonstrate that the school is indeed viable, although that hasn’t always been the case.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II had lost its state-recognized accreditation and faced financial challenges. Its board recommended that it close.

But it was the only Catholic school in its region of Minneapolis  — to close the school meant the loss of Catholic school education in an area in which 20 percent of people identify themselves as Catholic.

Archbishop Harry Flynn recommended the school remain open to serve its area, and new leadership came in to help strengthen the school. In the past six years, Father Jenson and Principal Debra King have worked to revitalize the school.

The school was awarded full accreditation in 2008, a feat of which King is especially proud.

The school transformed its single-grade classrooms into multi-age classrooms for grades after kindergarten, and uses class “leveling,” in which certain subjects are taught at the same time school-wide, and students attend language arts and math classes taught at their ability level, which may not correspond with their grade level.

This method works well at the school, since many of its students are learning English as a second language, Father Jenson said. In January, the archdiocese announced receiving a Solutions Initia­tive grant to help seven other schools use multi-age classrooms, with Pope John Paul II as a model.

And, Pope John Paul II School received a Sadlier Catholic Identity Award at the National Catholic Educational Associa­tion convention in April for its efforts to maintain its school’s Catholic identity.

In addition to its weekly all-school Mass, Pope John Paul II has added a Mass for each classroom, so Father Jenson can preach especially to their age group. The school also increased the number of all-school opportunities for the sacrament of Reconciliation, and it has introduced its students to Benediction, which includes eucharistic adoration. Prayer is a regular part of the students’ day, and Father Jenson is a frequent classroom visitor.

The school’s enrollment increased by 15 percent this year, boosting it to 105 students. The school had maintained a stable enrollment for the previous five years.

Long-term planning

The archdiocesan Catholic Schools Office has met with all schools assigned to one of the three review categories to explain its expectations.

“As schools are asked to go through these reviews, there are no preconceived conclusions. It’s an open process. There were all kinds of rumors out there, and I think [the open process] is really reassuring to them,” Frauenheim said.

“We want this to be about their community. We want them to come to the conclusions that they do. We want them to look at all the options and the challenges,” she added.

The schools’ planning process does mean more work for the schools, but it’s required now for Catholic education to be stronger in the future, Frauenheim said. The process should be familiar — schools already plan for their future as part of routine accreditation reviews every seven  years. Additionally, schools submit annual progress reports to the accreditation organization and the Catholic Schools Office.

In order to ease the process, the archdiocese compiled each review school’s data for it to use as it examines its situation.

The archdiocese is also working with the Alliance for Catholic Education of the University of Notre Dame to identify school funding models and other  best practices already in place in other U.S. Catholic schools that the archdiocese may be able to adopt. ACE reported its findings to the archdiocese the week of Nov. 7.

A ‘mission critical’ school?

Despite Pope John Paul II School’s improvements, the school’s past troubles were so deeply rooted in the community’s mind that it took several years to convince parishioners that the school was not on the verge of closure and that it was worth investing in.

Even now, Holy Cross parish is working to meet fire code in the 1949 building it rents to John Paul II Catholic School. The parish installed a fire alarm system at a cost of nearly $100,000, and now it’s trying to raise the money for a sprinkler system, which is expected to cost about $250,000.

Father Jenson and King view Pope John Paul II School as a “mission critical school” — a school essential to the local church’s mission, but unable to sustain itself financially without help from the broader Catholic community because of the demographics it serves.

Between 70 and 75 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a statewide marker indicating students from low-income families. More than half of its students are students of color.

Already, the school benefits from two grants designed to support urban Catholic schools: the Legacy Grant, which is administered by the archdiocese, and the Pohlad grant, which is administered through the Friends of Catholic Urban Schools, or FOCUS.

Yet, four of the northeast Minneapolis parishes that sponsor the school are slated to merge under the Strategic Plan for Parishes, which makes for an uncertain future, Father Jenson said, since it could affect parish subsidies.

Rather than look at the urgent review status as a stigma, King and Father Jenson are embracing it as an opportunity to explain more deeply their long-term vision and the schools’ value to its community and the archdiocese, they said.

“If we as a community are going to serve these children with a high level of poverty in their homes who want a faith-filled environment for their kids, then it’s going to take the community — and I mean the larger Catholic community — to support that,” King said.

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Category: Archdiocese Planning Process