Catholic schools’ study is addressing critical issues

aymond   Can you explain how you will proceed when you receive the recommendations of the strategic plan for Catholic schools?
    Dr. Lancaster and I will receive the report, probably in early June, and we will make copies to send to all pastors, principals and presidents. We’ll ask them to examine the report for statistical accuracy, and if there are inaccuracies, we will make sure those are corrected before we send out the full report again. The only thing we will withhold from the report will be the recommendations of school closures and mergers. We won’t make that public knowledge at that time because we think it would be better to deal with those issues in a more private, direct and consultative way with those principals and pastors who would be affected by a proposed closing or merger. The report will cover a number of things: Catholic identity, academic excellence, grade-level governance and structure, finances and, finally, the mergers and closures.
    Will the report offer specific options for taking action?
    Yes. It will give us options to examine. We will set up meetings at the beginning of the school year. I suspect there will be two, full-day, work meetings – one for pastors and the other for principals and presidents. We will go through the report in detail. This report is the result of a very long and meticulous study by two experts – Dr. John Convey and Dr. Leonard DeFiore of The Catholic University of America. They are bringing to us their objective look at our schools and the future. It’s then up to us, on the local level, to review their recommendations and choose one of the options – or maybe we’ll choose none of the options and come up with one of our own. That’s what the intense work sessions will be all about.
    What happens after that?
    The recommendations will be forwarded to me, and they will be discussed with the Office of Catholics Schools, especially Dr. Lancaster, the Presbyteral Council and the Council of Deans. Ultimately, the recommendations will come back to me. They will sit on my desk and sit in my heart and in my prayer, and I will have to make decisions. Some decisions will be very affirming, but others will be challenging. I have no doubt, because of the nature of this, that some of the decisions will be disappointing. The fact is we know we have many empty desks in our schools. We’ve been saying for two years that there will have to be closures and mergers, but I realize when it finally happens, the pain and the surprise still will be there. The fact is we have some schools that are bleeding desperately because of a lack of enrollment and a lack of funding. In order to be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us and in order to provide excellence in education, we’re going to have to make some adjustments.
    What about the challenge of addressing the grade-level structure between elementary and high schools?
    Some of our grammar schools have seventh and eighth grade; some don’t. Some of our high schools have seventh and eighth grade; some don’t. We have a whole array of various configurations. As I mentioned to the principals and the pastors recently, I am quite sure that through the years, no one intentionally caused this situation, but we have created a huge mess. One of the things we must do, if we are to be people of integrity, is to tackle this mess and try to unravel it and bring some sense to it. Right now, schools basically have done whatever they wished to do, and I’m sure they’ve done that with good intentions. But when any school – whether it’s a middle school, an elementary school or a high school – makes a decision, that decision affects other schools. Some of the decisions have been positive and negative on our family of schools.
    Many of the high schools are operated by religious communities. Does that add complexity to the discussions?
    I believe that we as an archdiocese and I personally have a very good relationship with the schools that are owned by religious communities. They are part of the family of schools. They do have specific charisms, based on their religious missions and their educational objectives, and they do have some autonomy. But in the spirit of us being a family of schools, it is important that everyone sees that we’re all in this together. Church law expects us to work together for the common good, and I feel very confident that we have and will continue to have the cooperation of the schools that are run by religious communities. They want what’s best for their students and also what’s best for the archdiocese.
    What about tuition rising to meet the cost of education?
    I’ve heard that people don’t want us to go up on tuition, and, quite frankly, I would prefer not to go up on tuition as well. But when you look at the reality that some parents could afford a raise in tuition, should they not, out of good stewardship, help us with that because that would provide funding for the parents of students who cannot afford it? I’ve heard some discontent on this, but I guess I would want to very kindly throw it back to them and say, “OK, if not this, then what? If this isn’t the solution, would you please help us find a solution? We desperately want to find a solution.” Catholic education in the Archdiocese of New Orleans – as it will be in many dioceses throughout the country – cannot be business as usual. If we don’t do something now to secure this educational family and system, we will lose it altogether in the next 20 to 30 years. So, it’s either a matter of doing it differently and doing it in a different spirit or losing the whole thing.
    What about the expansion of the scholarship program?
    We owe a debt of gratitude to Gov. Jindal and to the Legislature for their dedication to quality education. The expansion of the scholarship program statewide signifies very clearly that our state legislators believe in parental choice and in quality education so that no child should have to attend a failing school. Ultimately, this will give us the opportunity to provide not only a good education to children but also help to end the cycle of poverty. We have more than 1,500 scholarship children in our Catholic schools right now and they are doing very well. Ninety-eight percent of parents are very pleased with the education they are receiving. You can only educate a child once, and if you miss the opportunity, you’ve missed it for the child’s life.

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