The strategic plan for Catholic schools now underway by educators from The Catholic University of America is entering its final phases and is on schedule for completion by June, Dr. John Convey, the study’s coordinator, said.
Convey and Dr. Leonard DeFiore, another education professor from CUA, will return to New Orleans Feb. 2 to facilitate a meeting of priests at Schulte Hall. The clergy meeting is one of several remaining meetings still to be held in the coming months before final recommendations can be formulated, Convey said.
The priests’ meeting will seek clergy input on three major issues:
➤ How to financially support Catholic schools;
➤ How to use parish funds to support Catholic schools;
➤ How to assess the level of Catholic identity within the schools.
“We’re also going to deal with the issue of the structure of the schools and where the (grade-level) split should be between elementary and secondary schools,” Convey said.
The financing question clearly will be a major point of discussion at the priests’ gathering. Convey hopes to offer several financing proposals for priests to discuss, but he said with a laugh, “I haven’t figured them all out yet. I have another two weeks.”
Financing of Catholic schools is indeed a critical question throughout the United States. Earlier this month, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput announced plans to close 44 elementary schools and four high schools due to declining student enrollment and financial challenges.
Philadelphia is the sixth-largest Catholic school system in the country. The closings would reduce the number of elementary schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese from 156 to 112 and the number of high schools from 17 to 13. Students would have the opportunity to enroll at the Catholic school nearest their home.
Convey said the financial pressures on Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which has seen a 70 percent drop in Catholic school enrollment (250,000 to 68,000) in the last 50 years, are significant.
“I haven’t read the report, but my understanding is the schools that are merging have a low enrollment – but I don’t know what they mean by low enrollment,” Convey said.
In general terms, Convey said the strategic planning committee in the Archdiocese of New Orleans is trying examine and balance three major financial factors: the cost of tuition, the true cost of education and the level of tuition assistance needed to keep a school afloat.
“It’s a triad,” Convey said. “Some of the funding for tuition assistance has to come from the parishes, so the question would be how much and in what forms, et cetera.”
Waiting for feedback
Archbishop Gregory Aymond said he wants to keep a distance from the planning committee so that its recommendations are the result of a wide cross-section of feedback. There will be no school closings for the 2012-13 academic year, but Archbishop Aymond said it would be “foolhardy” not to expect some closings down the road.
“There are some low-enrollment schools that have a very high cost-per-student,” Convey said. “Those are the schools we are looking at in terms of potential (consolidation).”
Other meetings scheduled to receive feedback about the strategic plan will be March 21-23 with the Office of Catholic Schools, the Office of Religious Education and the Administrative Council; with the major superiors of religious orders who operate high schools in the archdiocese; with the presidents and principals of the elementary schools and high schools; and with parents representing the Council of Catholic School Cooperative Clubs.
Then, on March 28-29, Convey and DeFiore will lead four separate town hall meetings, open to the public, in various parts of the archdiocese. On April 25-26, there will be three additional town hall meetings. The locations and times of those meetings are still to be determined.
Study came at a good time
Dr. Jan Lancaster, who assumed her new role as superintendent of Catholic schools last summer, said she was glad the strategic planning is being done at the beginning of her tenure.
“As the new superintendent, I feel fortunate working with Dr. Convey and Dr. DeFiore and getting to know the whole region and the ins and outs of everything,” Lancaster said. “I am going to be forming an administrative advisory council of principals and presidents from both elementary and high schools. More than 35 people have expressed an interest in serving on the council, so that’s great.”
Convey said another way for individuals to weigh in on the strategic plan is to take a brief online survey (http://cua.neworleans.sgizmo.com).
“We’re getting a lot of cooperation with people answering the survey,” Convey said. “As of last week, 6,200 people had responded. That’s a good response.”
Convey and DeFiore also have used their trips to New Orleans to visit several schools “so that we can put a face to a name.”
“We talk to the school about their future plans and the issues they are facing,” Convey said. “We’re trying to be as knowledgeable as possible.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.