Monday, January 21, 2013

To Save Catholic Schools, All Suggestions Welcomed

In the push to save Catholic schools in this country, all suggestions should be considered, from the most coherent and logical to the most far-reaching and bold.  Now comes word that the New York Archdiocese will consider closing 28 elementary schools this year in a move to consolidate and hopefully boost enrollment and financial prospects for the remaining campuses.  As explained in The New York Times, “The archdiocese is in the process of regionalizing elementary school management and financing, and is hoping that new revenue sources, including an archdiocesan tax levied on each parish to support all schools in its local region, will help reduce the persistent operational deficits that it says are forcing the closings.”

This is not an illogical strategy.  Businesses that are franchised often close branches when things get tight in the hopes of boosting patronage at the remaining outlets.  However, schools are not businesses in the traditional sense, and who’s to say if students will make the transfer to other Catholic institutions once local parish campuses are closed.  As the Times article makes clear, some children won’t.  “In 2011, the archdiocese said that 36 percent of the children whose schools were closed left its school system.”  With competition from charter and magnet schools, many students will no doubt see a free public education as a financial relief over paying tuition.  Transferring to a new school is often traumatic for students, and parents might get the idea that if one Catholic school closed, the next one they choose could as well.

Catholic education was designed to serve the poor and middle class student population, and schools have done this effectively for decades.  Specifically, immigrants have benefited from a Catholic education.  Although alumni joke about nuns wielding rulers to smack a misbehaving child’s knuckles, Catholic schools have a loyal alumni base, and many prominent Americans attribute their successes in life to those same nuns and lay teachers who educated them so well.  Many average, working class people say the same thing.  Catholic schools are successful, and they have produced well-educated graduates for decades.

So how will Catholic schools survive?

Leadership is key, from the pastor to the principal to the teachers.  Pastors often see themselves as parish administrators.  Some take an active role in the school, while others feel the management falls on the principal and the leadership team.  The bottom line is that pastors must be involved.  Principals must become fundraisers and ambassadors for their schools.  Along with curriculum development, supervision, and all the other aspects that go into running a school, a principal must step up and reach out to the community.  In a sense, as crass as it sounds, a principal is the chief salesperson for the institution, as well as the principal teacher.

A key constituency in the community is the alumni.  Every effort must be made to develop an active database of alumni to solicit donations, scholarships, and endowment funding to insure the future of the school.  There is no better testament to a school’s success than an active alumni.  Principals and pastors should nominate alumni to serve on advisory boards and school governance councils so they can take an active role in the future of the institution.

Parish support is also crucial.  In many parishes, there is a disconnect between the church and the school.  Since the Catholic population attending Mass each Sunday is aging, many parishioners do not see the financial health of the school as their responsibility.  It is a matter of perpetuation.  Those current students will grow up to become active members of the parish, thereby insuring its health for years to come.  Principals must design activities and events to facilitate the bringing together of students, parents and parishioners so that everyone becomes a stakeholder in the health of the school.

One of the most aggravating issues in Catholic education today is the almost obsessive need to match the public school model.  This is ironic, because Catholic schools have always offered a better education than its public counterparts.  Now, we have principals demanding teachers with advanced degrees and credentials and installing curriculum in compliance with state core standards.  When did Catholic schools ever have to worry about not meeting the needs of their students to prepare them for high school and college?  Catholic schools always exceeded requirements, turning out generation after generation of well-prepared students.  The criteria for hiring teachers should be a love of teaching and learning.  Hopefully, teachers will also have a master’s and credential, but if they do not, diocese officials should continue to develop partnerships with Catholic universities and colleges to offer online teacher education courses leading to degrees and credentials.  A bad teacher cannot be made competent with a degree or credential, whereas a struggling teacher can benefit from coursework and mentorship.  However, nothing replaces passion and enthusiasm for teaching children.  Many of the most effective teachers were nuns, who regularly handled classes of 35, 40, or more students.  Often, they did this while completing their education not just for a master’s or credential, but sometimes for a bachelor’s degree.  My mentor teacher took ten years to complete a bachelor’s degree while handling first grade classes of up to 60 students.  Teaching is not about collecting sheepskin; at its most basic level, teaching is about knowing how to communicate and understand children, and getting them to learn.  In all the talk about teacher “bar exams” and increasing the bureaucracy for teacher certification, what is lost is why a person becomes a teacher in the first place.  It is a vocation and a calling, and someone who is passionate about teaching children can be taught to be a better teacher, but someone who lacks the fire and talent to educate young minds, even if he or she has all the degrees and credentials, will still be a failure.  It is time to start thinking creatively about how we certify teachers.

The concept of a longer school day and more school days per year must also be considered.  While public schools are cutting programs, classroom time, and school days, Catholic schools should seize the day and maximize school hours.  The Los Angeles Archdiocese recently increased school days from 180 to 200 days per year.  Parents and teachers responded in mixed ways, but ultimately, the longer school year offers increased value for students seeking an education for the future.

Another idea being piloted in several dioceses across the country is the hiring of a development director for elementary schools, something traditionally found only at the high school level.  This requires an additional salary, but sometimes money must be spent to reap benefits.  Schools in a particular area might share a single development director who would work full time to raise funds and create databases of donors.  This would also alleviate some of the pressure on the principal to be a public relations officer while trying to supervise teachers and students.  A good development director, working full time to increase a school’s profile and bring in funding, is worth his or her weight in gold.  The development director should also make abundant use of social media as a means of fundraising and publicizing the school.

Finally, schools must institute payment and tuition plans that meet the needs of financially strapped parents.  Especially in inner city and working class neighborhoods, parents need options for paying tuition.  If schools can be flexible, and parents are willing to work with the principal, an equitable agreement can be put in place to insure that tuition gets paid.  Scholarships and grants should be handed out after careful review of tax and income documentation, and programs like gifts-in-kind might be one creative way of allowing parents to pay tuition.  A school community of parents offers a wealth of services that could be exchanged for tuition payment.  Again, flexibility and a commitment to making a payment schedule work are necessary for the school to remain financially solvent, and parents must understand this and meet their agreed-upon responsibilities.

The situation in Catholic education is dire, and the prognosis is not good.  Many Catholic schools have been open for a century or more, and to see them closed and students pushed out would be devastating.  If survival means closing a few schools to make others stronger, then so be it, but this may not work, and such a proposition requires much scrutiny and reflection.  Hard choices and sacrifices must be made, but the payoff for students educated in academics and faith is a stronger and more competitive America in which they will play an important role.  Catholic schools are vital to our nation’s culture, and therefore, whatever the cost, we must find a way to keep the doors open, for the good of students and our future.

Check out another post on this topic here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

One For The Books

Joe Queenan is the kind of humor writer with whom one doesn’t always agree, but he never fails to provoke a laugh.  He is our Mark Twain for the 21st century.  His paean to reading, One For The Books (Viking, 2012), does not disappoint and shows him at his snarkiest.

Unlike his darker and more bitter memoir, Closing Time (Viking, 2009), One For The Books is fun, especially if one is a reader who also had a childhood steeped in late night love affairs with print matter under the covers with a flashlight.  The problem is that those of us who are reading now, and became hooked in our formative years, well, we are dwindling in numbers according to Queenan.  His writing life allows him two hours a day for books and two hours a day for newspapers and magazines.  This adds up to his reading of more than 100 books per year.  “If it were possible,” he writes, “I would read eight to ten hours a day every day of the year…There is nothing I would rather do than read books.”

What does Queenan read?  He has discerning taste and reads almost exclusively fiction, unless he’s reviewing a nonfiction book for publication.  His opinion on the high school reading list is especially filled with scorn, and he singles out what he would call the abusive practice of teachers assigning books to be read over the summer.  He has no time for The Catcher In The Rye, A Separate Peace, or any other book featuring boys in a prep school.  He also dismisses Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, The Red Badge of Courage, and The Grapes of Wrath.

The problem with trying to be funny is that perfectly good people, institutions, and books get trampled upon.  Yes, those novels above are old school tomes written by dead, white males, but they’re good books.  He calls Harper Lee’s book—she, of course, a still-living white woman—a “featherweight” homily.  Excuse me, but Atticus Finch will always be the most moral character in fiction and To Kill A Mockingbird should be on every high school reading list.  However, to Queenan, he is “Just the Nicest White Man Ever.”

Queenan inspired me to reread some books, and in one instance, sent me scrambling to a used book website to order a four-volume edition of George Macaulay Trevelyan’s A Social History of England (Longmans, Green and Co., 1949).  The books arrived yesterday, and they are wonderful.  I love the smell of old books, but I digress.

I loved Queenan’s amusing stories about libraries, book shops, and public readings.  He is self-deprecating and black Irish funny.  And because of this, his prose is occasionally tinted in the sepia tones of memory threaded through with a touch of sadness.  The Irish are natural storytellers.  They “had no land, no money, no future,” Queenan writes.  “That left them with words, and words became books, and books, ingeniously coupled with music and alcohol, enabled the Irish to transcend reality.”  Queenan reminds us of his Irishness, his connection to this history of words:  “I grew up poor, and lots of times we had no food.  Lots of times we had no heat.  Lots of times we had no television.  But we always had books.  And books put an end to our misfortune.”  When Queenan goes to clean out his abusive and alcoholic father’s apartment after he dies, he finds little in the way of creature comforts, but he finds books, lots and lots of books.  His father was a man of limited formal education, but he was a reader, and his son believes he inherited his love from his parent who gave little else but misery.

Throughout, Queenan can be sharp-tongued and piquant, sad without being maudlin.  Let’s face it:  readers—the ones who read everything compulsively like a saint absorbed in prayer—and book shops, the churches where they worship, are disappearing.  This is a theme in Queenan’s writing.  His wittiest, sharpest barbs are saved for electronic reading devices, the Kindles, iPads, and Nooks of the world.  When Queenan recounts his rereading of favorite books and finding ticket stubs, notes, lists of hopes and dreams, and other fragments of memory between the yellowed pages, he points out how that cannot happen with a Kindle.  When he traces the way books bring people together across time and distance, evoking ghosts and lost years, no electronic screen gives such a tactile experience.  No marginalia, old coffee stains, or whiff of earthiness from long-ago summer rains can be accessed on an iPad.

“Reading is the way mankind delays the inevitable,” Queenan writes in the final pages.  “Reading is the way we shake our fist at the sky.”  He means, of course, the human condition.  Death.  “Every life, even the best ones, ends in sadness,” he says.  “People we adore pass on; voices we love to hear are stilled forever.  Books hold out hope that things may end otherwise.”  In an interview, he elaborated on this idea.  “I also believe that everything that happens to you as you grow older makes it easier to die, because the world you once lived in, and presumably loved, is gone.”

His is a brave faith in the written word, because books tell us that things do end, characters die, and a reader always comes to the end of the last page.  Joe Queenan would tell us to return to page one and read it again.  Surely, we will love it even more a second or third or fourth time through.  Read, read, read, he tells us.  We must stave off the inevitable, the unavoidable, end.