The future of Catholic education

| January 24, 2019 | 0 Comments

To face the challenges in Catholic education, local leaders have created a ‘roadmap’ to guide the path forward

Kindergartner Levi Brown of Faithful Shepherd Catholic School in Eagan reacts to the reading of the story “Nicky and the Rainy Day” by his teacher, Kathy Malmquist, during class

Kindergartner Levi Brown of Faithful Shepherd Catholic School in Eagan reacts to the reading of the story “Nicky and the Rainy Day” by his teacher, Kathy Malmquist, during class Jan. 17. Catholic Schools Week is Jan. 27 through Feb. 2.

The Catholic school landscape in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is dynamic. Since 2011, new local nonprofit partners such as the Aim Higher Foundation and Catholic Schools Center of Excellence have formed to support Catholic education through funding scholarships, and excellence and enrollment-boosting efforts, respectively. Other community partners, such as the Catholic Community Foundation, GHR Foundation, Schulze Family Foundation and Catholic Services Appeal Foundation have provided valuable support.

Meanwhile, in 2016, the New Jersey-based Healey Education Foundation partnered with six schools in the archdiocese to assist them with advancement and governance innovations. The Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame has also been working with three additional schools to incorporate “blended learning,” an instruction innovation that advocates say helps teachers better meet students’ individual learning needs.

That’s not to mention the significant everyday investments of time, talent and treasure made by pastors and parish communities that are directly supporting schools or partnering with schools elsewhere in the archdiocese.

Jason Slattery

Catholic education in the archdiocese is strong, said Jason Slattery, director of the archdiocese’s Office for the Mission of Catholic Education. However, he said, it has tremendous potential to be stronger — and it needs to be.

Despite the energy around particular initiatives and other positive indicators — such as recent data showing an uptick in preschool, kindergarten and ninth-grade enrollment — Slattery has heard from principals, pastors and families voicing a litany of similar concerns.

Catholic schools need help, they’ve said, with enrollment; with student, teacher and leadership retention; with navigating the pastor-principal relationship; with funding, tuition-assistance and competitive wages; with Catholic identity and academic excellence; with clear governance models; and with access for students from low-income families, minority communities, inner-city neighborhoods and rural areas. And collected data affirm the anecdotes.

The challenges are longstanding; past strategic planning efforts in the archdiocese — including one as recent as 2012 — aimed to resolve many of those issues. They are also not unique to the archdiocese; they’re ones with which Catholic schools in almost every part of the country are grappling, Slattery said.

What is unique, he said, is the approach archdiocesan leaders are taking to address them.

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL ‘CATHOLIC’?Bishop Andrew Cozzens serves as the archdiocese’s Vicar for Catholic Education. He described the Roadmap as a way for Archbishop Bernard Hebda to bring local Catholic school supporters together in a strategic way to ensure they’re working in concert.

At the forefront of that vision, he said, is that schools serve the mission of the Church, which is to make the love of Christ known. That’s expressed not only through curriculum, sacraments and culture, he said, but also in how students and teachers treat one another.

“It flows into every aspect of the school,” he said.

Catholic and non-Catholic students alike benefit from a “robust” Catholic identity, he said, which is why many non-Catholic families also choose Catholic schools for their children. “We believe that if we’re true to who we are, even non-Catholics will benefit from that.”

Since 2017, Slattery has been working with local and national Catholic education partners and stakeholders to assess the challenges and establish a framework for strengthening and sustaining Catholic education.

Leaders are calling that framework the “Roadmap for Excellence in Catholic Education.” Its work is being driven by five teams, each tasked with exploring particular challenges facing preschool-to-eighth-grade schools and identifying best-practice solutions.

“The Roadmap is an effort to draw together resources from across the archdiocese to plan the future for meeting the needs of Catholic education,” Slattery said.

“It’s not a strategic plan,” he clarified, “but it identifies areas of strategic importance. … and the archdiocese has a deep desire to try to meet those.”

Slattery thinks of the Roadmap as a group of “action teams” who are dedicating significant time to researching particular issues and identifying potential solutions. The five teams are focused on talent management, curriculum and metrics, access and sustainability, mission schools and governance. (Read more about the teams)

Once committees identify best practices related to particular action items, they will make recommendations on implementation or further action to the archbishop. The scope of their work is focused on the 79 Catholic grade schools in the archdiocese.

The Roadmap’s work is ultimately about Catholic school students and families, Slattery said, and “ensuring that they have a partner in the important work of education, [and] that Catholic education is an opportunity that students and families have today and in the years ahead.”

In 2015, the archdiocese closed its longstanding Office for Catholic Schools and launched a new, more tightly focused office — the Office for the Mission of Catholic Education — a recognition, Slattery said, that Catholic education is at the heart of the mission of the Church. Slattery, who had been president of Ave Maria Academy in Maple Grove, was named its director. Part of the new office’s commission was to get to the essentials of what it means for the archdiocese to serve Catholic education effectively, which started from consideration of how parents today look to the Church for a partner in the education of their children.

“We had the chance to begin to identify the very critical and important things that the archdiocese could be doing to help to ensure that Catholic education has a strong future,” Slattery said. That process has taken time, he said, for the leaders involved to ensure that the right challenges were being prioritized, he said.

“Through that effort we were able to really work with many of our parish and foundation partners to understand more and more what they wanted to contribute to the work of Catholic education, and to listen to them as to where they saw the most pressing needs, and then to begin to build the framework … for checking off those projects,” he said. “We’re in a far better position today to address the challenges than we certainly were five years ago.”

The effort is led by Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who has strongly voiced support for Catholic schools in the archdiocese, as well as Bishop Andrew Cozzens, the archdiocese’s Vicar for Catholic Education. (See Q&A with Archbishop Hebda)

Doug Milroy, a Twin Cities business executive who has volunteered time helping Archbishop Hebda and Bishop Cozzens develop the Roadmap, noted that although the framework is designed to guide its leaders through the next three to five years, it doesn’t have a definitive end.

“I don’t believe [we] will ever stop trying to improve Catholic education,” Milroy said. “However, there’s a lot of work right now to be done that’s reflected the lack of resources we’ve had over the last several years. And so this Roadmap gets at a lot of the heavy-lifting near-term and creates a really solid foundation that we’ll be able then to build on for years to come.”

As urgent as some of the needs are, Slattery cautions against expectations that the Roadmap will yield quick fixes. Instead, Catholics should look for the strength and sustainability of local Catholic schools to increase over the next five, 10 and 15 years. The aim is to do the job thoroughly, he said.

Slattery believes the job can be done because of the expertise of the people who are working on the questions and his trust in God’s help.
“Even through the challenges that we’ve been facing here in the archdiocese,” he said, alluding to the archdiocese’s recently resolved Chapter 11 bankruptcy, “we have been able to assemble an incredible group of people with tremendous talents and gifts who could be doing any number of things in the world. But … the thing they’ve pledged they want to do most right now is to help us with Catholic education.”
Slattery asked for prayers that Catholic schools in the archdiocese might be places of encounter with Jesus Christ and that the efforts being put into the Roadmap will succeed.

“Our history in Catholic ed[ucation] can be traced often along those lines of: The Church faced significant challenges, the Lord called people forth,” he said. “He supplied the grace. They acted. And we overcame those challenges, and I think it’s very similar today, even with the humble beginnings of the Roadmap.”

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Category: Catholic Schools Week