Keeping the Faith

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"We've been getting a great deal of positive press. ... But we must not ever lose sight of why we're here.

Sister Louise Levesque
Providence Leadership Program

Round's leadership-training program and others like it reflect the Catholic education community's need to face the overwhelming changes affecting it.

Despite the apparent significance it gives to tradition, Catholic education in the United States has changed significantly since its heyday in the late 1950s, when more than 5 million students in the United States attended Catholic schools.

Urban flight helped to halve Catholic school enrollment from the late 1950s to the 1991-92 school year, when it hit about 2.4 million, according to figures complied by the National Center for Education Statistics. The convening of a Rome council in the 1960s called Vatican II greatly liberalized the church, allowing the parishes to abandon the Latin mass and letting nuns exchange their habits for street clothes. But perhaps the most important move was that Rome emphasized the importance of lay Catholics--not just the priests, brothers, and sisters who take religious vows--in carrying out the work of the church. The number of priests in the United States has fallen from about 58,600 in 1965 to 49,000 in 1996, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. The decline has been even more precipitous for the nuns who traditionally provided the bulk of Catholic school staff, dropping from about 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 90,000 now.

Despite these changes, Catholic education has claimed a victory in recent years. After hitting bottom, enrollment has grown by about 200,000 students in recent years. Although much of this growth came from the addition of preschool programs to many existing Catholic elementary schools, new parochial schools also are being built, mostly in the suburbs, to meet the demands of a new generation of young parents. Some of those parents attended Catholic schools while growing up; others want their children to get a moral education along with an academic one. And though they are struggling with persistent economic problems, most Catholic schools in the cities continue to attract parents by touting their record of success in serving at-risk students. For the most part, the emergence of a Catholic school system in which about 90 percent of the teachers are lay hasn't worried most of these parents.

But the fact that parents continue to express satisfaction with the academic success of parochial schools also overshadows a deeper concern held by the church about the future of Catholic education.

"We've been getting a great deal of positive press, which we're very happy about, and the fact is that many studies show that Catholic schools are excelling," says Sister Louise Levesque, who runs training sessions for the candidates in the Providence leadership program. "But we must not ever lose sight of why we're here just because we're excelling."

While the transition from mostly religious to mostly lay teachers causes little concern anymore, the prospect of having dioceses with all-lay principals is another matter.

Vatican II spelled out that mission in its Declaration on Christian Education, in which it wrote: "What makes the Catholic school distinctive is its attempt to generate a community climate in the school that is permeated by the gospel spirit of freedom and love. ... It tries to relate all of human culture to the goodness of salvation so that the light of faith will illumine everything that the students will gradually come to learn about the world, about life, and about the human person."

The church's ability to fulfill that mission was taken more for granted a few decades ago when the church could rely more on its sisters, brothers, and priests to run its schools. While the transition from mostly religious to mostly lay teachers causes little concern anymore, the prospect of having dioceses with all-lay principals is another matter.

In the culture of Catholic education, the principal holds particular significance. In addition to the myriad responsibilities assigned to their counterparts in public education, the leaders of Catholic schools must raise funds, set salaries and tuition, hire and fire faculty, and market to parents to stay afloat.

"The relationship between the Catholic school principal and the superintendent is much more of a service relationship, rather than an authority line," says the University of Oregon's Ciriello. "He does everything that a superintendent in a small public school district would do."

Most important, however, the principal is the one who's responsible for maintaining the school's Catholic identity. In the lexicon of Catholic education, the principal is often called a "faith leader" or "the leader of a faith community," and the central part of his job is to ensure--through administrative decisions and actions as a role model--that the Catholicity permeates everything that happens in the building.

Without as many vowed religious personnel to fulfill that mission, the task is increasingly being left to lay people like Round.

"There is a worry of where are these principals going to get the vocational training to puzzle through the mess of maintaining a Catholic school so that it is still Catholic," says the Rev. Richard Jacobs, an Augustinian priest who's written a monograph on the issue for the National Catholic Educational Association. "If all my training has been in site-based management and instructional leadership and all those buzzwords, and I don't spend time working with my school's people to develop their faith, then I'm compromising my school's Catholic identity."

Few of these issues are taught in most colleges and universities with school-administration programs--the vast majority of which are geared toward public education. Even few Catholic institutions of higher education offer education-administration courses on the subject of Catholic identity because most of their students are also headed for a job in public schools.

"By not providing the vocational training to lay principals, we will become Catholic in name only," Jacobs says. "And when you ask what makes your school Catholic, they'll say things that are not any different than what you could say in a public school, or they'll say, 'Well, we have religious class, or crucifixes, or uniforms.' "

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