Advertisements ad

January 18, 2009

NCEA president: Catholic schools must show their light

By Michelle Martin


Karen Ristau, the president of the National Catholic Education Association, is going into this year’s Catholic Schools Week celebrating the service that Catholic schools provide to the United States.

The nation’s nearly 7,400 Catholic elementary and secondary schools offer a “gift” of $19.8 billion in savings each year by educating students not at taxpayer expense, according to a statement on its Web site.

The association coordinates efforts to celebrate Catholic Schools Week the last week of January every year as part of its efforts to highlight the contributions Catholic schools make to the church and the world.

“I think that too often we keep our light under a bushel basket,” said Ristau, whose long career in Catholic education included two years as president of Immaculate Heart of Mary High School in Westchester. “We don’t share our story well enough. We have to get the message out.”

That’s one of the main focuses of the NCEA. The other is providing services and resources to its members, Catholic school educators from all over the country.

In recent years, professional development and information sessions on financial management, Catholic identity, advancement and governance issues have drawn the most participation, Ristau said.

Emphasize Catholicity

That list includes many of the same issues that Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago are focusing on, with the creation of “boards of specified jurisdiction” to help manage schools and a renewed emphasis on the Catholicity of the schools.

That emphasis is needed, Ristau said, because of the way Catholic culture — not just the schools — has changed.

“The whole face of the parish has changed,” she said, with fewer priests and nuns in the schools and more students attending schools that are not run by their home parishes.

“The thing about how Catholic schools are being run by excellent and very dedicated professional laypeople is that they look like the kids’ parents, or the neighbor down the street,” she said, unlike the nuns of decades past in their distinctive habits. “So we have to talk explicitly about our Catholic identity, and I think that’s a good thing.”

In terms of financial management, schools are changing from a system in which the sponsoring parish — and often, one of the priests in the parish — handled all financial matters for the school.

“It wasn’t uncommon for tuition to be dropped off at the rectory,” she said.

But with a declining number of priests, many dioceses have pastors assigned to more than one parish, and the rectory might be empty, leaving the financial management of schools in the hands of laypeople.

When the schools have qualified professional people handling their finances, Ristau said, as well as serving on boards and working to emphasize the Catholic identity of the schools, they will be well-served.

“They will be made stronger as an organization and they will be as Catholic as ever,” she said.

Follow the trends

Of course, there are more Catholic schools closing than opening — there were 622 fewer Catholic schools in the 2007- 2008 school year than five years earlier — but much of that is to due to demographic trends, as families have moved away from neighborhoods that were once heavily Catholic.

“People moved, and the schools haven’t done a good job of following them,” Ristau said, noting that new Catholic schools nearly always open with a waiting list.

Other schools, in neighborhoods where many families face economic challenges, might fare better if there were more support for parents to choose the schools their children attend, perhaps by use of vouchers.

“Right now, only the parents who have the means can choose,” she said. “We think all parents should be able to choose.”