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May 24, 2009

To whom do our schools belong?

By Sr. M. Paul McCaughey


In reflecting on the key questions surrounding our Catholic Schools today, I am conscious of Father (Ted) Hesburgh’s mandate to leaders to “not blow an uncertain trumpet,” but I do not have all the answers. I hope to offer you the same questions with which I believe our newly formed Board of Catholic Schools must grapple ... and soon.

Do the schools exist to form generations of new Catholics or are we in the neighborhood to transform society? Are we committed to “making Catholics” or do we sponsor the school “not because they are Catholic but because we are”? Research shows that a solid community sustains the neighborhood, but surely that is not our only mission there.

Welcome wins hearts

In many ways, the very question about “Catholic” sets up a false dichotomy. Both dogma and invitation — and for a priest in a South Side neighborhood who walks his dog among his people and has a list of new converts — it is welcome that wins hearts. So while we in justice welcome all, we need to be unabashedly Catholic, implementing a newly developed challenging religion curriculum. More than 1,000 of our teachers took courses from St. Mary’s University last year; almost 500 are certified as master catechists ... and still this is not enough. Our academic excellence and community of faith needs to be integral and explicit everywhere, in each and every school.

The schools across Cook and Lake counties possess very different configurations, but the vast majority are places of love and service, discipline, homework, and prayer focused on students and on families. Is this enough? Or should we look for new ways to evangelize and to hold our children? Are there wider concerns about the church’s mission? Do we expect too much of our schools and not enough of the church that needs to feed them?

High schools, parish life

Our high schools, for example, are often rightly and roundly criticized for not reconnecting young people to their parish life. But these teens (who have often had intense experiences at retreat, liturgy and service) have high expectations for engagement they sometimes cannot find in the parish pew. Only 30 percent of those who call themselves Catholic attend Mass regularly. Non-practicing Catholics are now the single largest religious group in the United States. As our “October counts” of parishioners decline, we see the need to address families and their relationship to the church. Can our schools serve to reengage our families?

What kind of schools are we all willing to pay for? The exploring and piloting of new models is imperative if risky. Struggling parents have told us they need to entrust their children to us from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; early childhood and primary centers may not only offer the best intervention but an opportunity to recapture the hearts of the parents. What about year-round schools, academy models, middle schools and junior high schools? Can we think across parish boundaries and still be connected vitally to parishes?

Resources still an issue

Resources remain the elephant in the room. What about turning Archdiocese of Chicago subsidies into scholarship and creating our own version of a voucher system? Or vouchers themselves? Let’s get brave and make a legal challenge. How about corporate tax credits like those in Arizona or Pennsylvania which would assist the Catholic middle class who are the ones currently squeezed out of our schools? Or boards to engage larger constituencies? Bonding? Building? Can we restore the classic buildings and part with those whose unfunded depreciation has made them a risk? Can we create charters with our own educational management organization? How about the stewardship model in a parish whereby tuition is free if you go to church and contribute to your ability?

Leadership is key

Leadership is at the heart of school success. Can we expand volunteer teaching corps or senior volunteers for needed skills? Or how to get more of the bright young people from our colleges? The University of Chicago spent its research dollars last year to confirm what we’ve long felt: The brighter the teacher, the higher the student achievement. Our principals wear so many hats — how can we prepare and assist them?

Years ago, our schools were built to mirror the faith of a community who believed that faith, promise, as well as the American dream were within those walls. Schools were begun so that Catholic children would not be theologized as Protestants and with the goal of assimilating them into the culture. Today, public schools are godless and our goal now is to graduate young people of love and service whose lives are counter-cultural.

Perhaps the most fundamental question is: “To WHOM do the schools belong?”