In what has become an all-too-frequent ritual, the Archdiocese of New York has announced the closure of 12 Catholic elementary schools, along with the merging of four other schools into two. Fourteen schools, then, all in New York City, will be shuttered. This follows the closure of 20 schools in 2020, 24 in 2013, and 26 in 2011.
Each time, the archdiocese has reported that it is closing these schools in a strategic retreat to a defensible number, and that every child in the affected schools will be offered a seat in other Catholic schools. Things have not quite worked out that way, though. In 2011, the archdiocesan schools, including those in counties north of the city, enrolled over 47,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Last year, that number was less than 25,000. The Catholic school system as we know it is slipping away, here and in other dioceses around the country. I do not envy the administrators who have dedicated their career to Catholic education—their job is not easy—but it is time to ask new questions and consider new approaches.
Some school closures, owing to enrollment declines, were inevitable. But the archdiocese has locked its system into a slow death spiral because it has not addressed the root cause of that decline. Families who choose religious or private schools should receive public financial support, but New York hasn’t given it to them. And while charter schools offer a better-financed alternative to parochial schools at no cost to parents, they cannot provide the spiritual formation at the heart of all religious schools.
What the Archdiocese of New York and others around the country have not done is ask tough questions: Why are families leaving our schools? What can be done to improve the schools? And how to do that?
Examples of Catholic school revitalization do exist, helped along by lay and religious leaders dedicated to the notion that Catholic schools serve unique religious and civic missions. I have seen some of these people in action. On Long Island, a small community of priests and brothers, the Marianist Province of Meribah, stepped in to open a new Catholic high school when the local diocese chose to retrench radically its high school system. That high school grew to include a middle school; and, in more recent years, the Marianists took over an elementary school on the verge of closure in a lower-income area. All these schools thrive. Meantime, in the New York archdiocese, a group of generous benefactors founded a nonprofit, Partnership Schools, that revitalized and administers seven schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. Partnership Schools has expanded to four schools in Cleveland, also thriving. Finally, just a day after last week’s archdiocesan announcement, I visited a newly opened Catholic school in Westchester, housed in a building that had been a parish school until it was closed in 2020. The Hawthorn School is new and small but staffed by dedicated teachers committed to Catholic values and classical education. Its principal figure is an accomplished leader of Catholic and charter schools. I expect to see Hawthorn grow in the years ahead.
These are just a few examples. More exist around the country, including some schools that have adopted classical education and others that serve affluent families, who can afford higher tuitions. Those schools can better support their teachers, some of whom may someday turn to serve poor communities in different ways.
In a 2019 report for the Manhattan Institute, Kathleen Porter-Magee noted that in the 1970s and 1980s, inner-city Catholic schools were the only available option for parents seeking alternatives to failing public schools. These schools’ success with children from lower-income families inspired the growth of a nationwide public school reform movement, including the creation of charter schools. But it was not enough for Catholic schools to light that spark and then exit the stage. Public institutions are fickle. Religious schools, including Catholic schools, must continue to stand for permanent truths, wrote Porter-Magee: “What if the secret sauce that makes Catholic schools truly exceptional—and their results enduring—is the way they treat every student as having equal worth before God? Or about how they see test scores or any metric of achievement as having value only in the service of that larger ideal?” Only religious schools can demonstrate a commitment to these higher values.
If Catholic leaders could look beyond the failed model of the parish school, they might find that the ground is ripe for planting new seeds. Catholic schools rebounded more quickly than others from pandemic losses. By the end of last year, they demonstrated an academic recovery far beyond what public schools enjoyed. Public school closures, and culture-war battles within public schools, led many parents to seek alternatives.
Any Catholic school renewal will require diocesan offices to write a new job description for themselves. Counting heads and consolidating students into traditional parish schools is not working. Instead, diocesan leaders should find and support leaders willing to take risks and reform the existing schools into models of academic excellence, formative education, and fiscal stability. Some of these leaders are teachers and school officials. Others run networks dedicated to Catholic school improvement and growth. Still others are generous benefactors. One can only hope that before closing these 14 schools—and before shuttering any more schools—the archdiocese has worked to identify a new generation of supporters ready to join them in this battle.
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