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Catholic Leaders See Wider Mission in Lower Enrollments

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Beset by enrollment declines and financial pressures, Roman Catholic educators are examining ways to broaden the church's traditional emphasis on parochial schools by promoting a "cradle-to-grave'' view of religious education.

As the number of students in Catholic schools has declined--shrinking by 50 percent over the past 20 years--an increasing number of Catholic educational organizations have been formed to serve those outside the school population.

"We will probably see the core of formal schooling continue to shrink, but there will be an explosion in the group around the core,'' said Brother Raymond Fitz, president of the University of Dayton, where representatives from 22 Catholic organizations gathered late last month for a symposium on the church's future educational mission.

"We need to look at education as cradle to the grave,'' said Brother Fitz, employing a theme that was expanded upon in a series of statements issued at the end of the meeting.

Catholic schools that survive the current fiscal and enrollment crunch, other educators predicted last week, will be more financially stable, more religiously oriented, and more focused on service as community "education centers,'' with programs for younger children and adults.

The participants at the Dayton conference called on the church to "develop more effective uses of our changing resources'' and "to renew existing structures and create new ones for the delivery of education to all peoples.''

Not 'Dropping the Schools'

The principal sponsors of the symposium were the National Catholic Educational Association and the United States Catholic Conference, the administrative arm of the American bishops.

Most of the 300 participants were from organizations established for constituencies outside the schools, including the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry, the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, the National Office for Black Catholics, and the National Conference of Diocesan Directors of Religious Education.

While discussion centered on broadening the church's educational mission, the symposium was "in no way intended to say we are dropping Catholic schools,'' said the Rev. Thomas G. Gallagher, secretary for education for the U.S.C.C.

In fact, Catholic educators interviewed last week expressed optimism that parochial schools were weathering the storms that have rocked the system since the mid-1960's.

Brother Robert J. Kealey, executive director of the department of elementary schools for the NCEA, said he saw a "renaissance across the country as parents and pastors are looking again at the value of Catholic education.''

"At one time, Catholic educators were defensive; we tried to be like the public schools,'' Brother Kealey said. "In the last several years, there has been a re-emphasis on our uniqueness.''

Adapting to New Times

In 1964, 13,000 Catholic schools served 5.6 million students. Since then, the number of schools has dropped to about 9,000 and enrollment has fallen to 2.6 million.

The decline has been fueled by a number of factors, according to experts, including a falling national birth rate, the movement of Catholics from the cities to suburban areas with no parochial schools, a decline in the number of nuns available to teach in the schools, and the increased costs required to pay for lay teachers. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1987.)

In recent years, Catholic educators have turned to professional fundraising and marketing campaigns to reverse their declining fortunes.

The Hartford, Conn., archdiocese, for example, this month launched a five-year campaign to raise $25 million for its schools. About $5 million has already been raised from corporations and individuals, according to archdiocese officials.

Other ambitious fundraising programs are in place in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. And in many other dioceses marketing campaigns to promote the schools have been accompanied by extensive long-range planning studies to determine where schools should be closed or consolidated and, in some cases, where new schools should be built.

Such efforts, said Brother Fitz, will produce a "very healthy core'' of Catholic schools.

Because the Catholic school system is decentralized, he said, each diocese and parish will have to find different ways to adapt. "It's going to be very situational,'' he said.

Preschool and 'Faith Centers'

Many Catholic educators seeking renewed enrollment vitality are looking mainly to the very young. Catholic preschool enrollment has doubled over the past five years, and the number of children in parochial kindergartens is at its highest level ever this year, nearly 200,000 children, according to the N.C.E.A.

To Brother Kealey, these figures represent "a sleeping giant.'' He and other educators say they believe that children who attend Catholic schools as preschoolers or kindergartners will be more inclined to stay in the Catholic system later on.

"We are going to start to see slight increases in enrollment in the lower grades,'' Brother Kealey predicted.

But according to Donald R. McCrabb, director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, schooling is "just one dimension of Catholic education.''

"If a parish has only a certain amount of resources, and most of it is going to a school,'' he said, "then other needs aren't being met.''

To meet these other needs, some parishes have extended the hours that their school buildings remain open, or have converted vacant schools into centers for young adults, the elderly, the disadvantaged, women seeking job training, and other groups.

The St. James Church in Stratford, Conn., has established what it calls a Faith Formation Center, which includes a school for 380 children and an after-school program for about 500 others who attend public schools.

The school costs about $500,000 more annually to operate than tuition brings in, and the parish must pay half of that bill, with the diocese picking up the other half.

"We're trying to get a better balance [between the school and other programs],'' said the Rev. Thomas F. Lynch, pastor of the church. "It's expensive.''

In addition, the pastor is trying to place more emphasis on instilling Catholic values.

"The Catholic schools should be radically different from the public school system,'' he said. "We need to take these values and look at what they say about how to live our lives.''

No comprehensive statistics are available on the number of religious-education programs outside of the church schools, but church officials estimate that about 5,000 people now work as full-time directors of religious education in diocesan offices and in parishes. No such positions existed 25 years ago.

Some express concern that such activities may supersede, rather than augment, efforts to boost formal schooling in the church.

'Lukewarm' Support?

While few church leaders would actively discourage investments in traditional Catholic schools, said Brother Kealey, some bishops and priests have grown "lukewarm'' in their support.

Some of those leaders, he said, see the schools as a financial drain on the church and say the money would be better spent on religious-education and other programs.

That attitude, he noted, is vastly different from the stance taken in the early part of the century, when newly formed parishes were admonished to "build the school before the church.''

But pressure from parents, Brother Kealey said, is causing doubters in the church hierarchy to reexamine their beliefs.

"Parents are going to the pastor and saying, 'We want a preschool.' It's a very strong movement,'' he said.

Other leaders noted that the church's social ministries have always been under financial strain. "If our forefathers could do it with nickels, we can do it with dollars,'' Father Gallagher said.

He argued that the cost of schools is irrelevant because the church has an educational mission.

"The question is not, 'Can we afford to have our schools?''' said Father Gallagher. "The question is, 'Can we afford not to have our schools?'''

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