School Choice & Charters

Catholic Schools’ Mission to Serve Needy Children Jeopardized by Closings

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 08, 2005 7 min read
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The challenges of keeping Catholic schools open in working-class neighborhoods were brought home here last month, when the Archdiocese of Chicago announced it would close 23 elementary schools and merge or consolidate four others in June.

Two weeks earlier, the Diocese of Brooklyn in New York City decided to close 26 elementary schools in Brooklyn and Queens at the end of the school year, although four will be reopened as regional schools.

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Such announcements are raising grave concerns over the toll that rising costs, changing demographics, and declining enrollments are taking on the longtime Roman Catholic mission of providing schooling for needy children.

“We are concerned,” said Nicholas M. Wolsonovich, the superintendent of schools for the Chicago Archdiocese. “We do not want to become schools only for the wealthy.”

Chicago’s Catholic school closings will affect 4,187 children.

If those children don’t switch to other Catholic schools, the number of the city’s Catholic schoolchildren from low-income families in prekindergarten through 8th grade will slip from 18,463 to 15,828, or from 24 percent to 22 percent, according to the archdiocese. The archdiocese defines a child as being from a low-income family if he or she qualifies to receive a free or reduced-price lunch in the federal government’s food program.

The archdiocese enrolls 106,700 students in 276 schools, making it the second-largest nonpublic school system in the country.

The concerns in Chicago are shared nationwide.

“We are losing a significant number of low-income kids and replacing them with a smaller number of students from the middle and upper classes,” said Michael J. Guerra, the president of the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association. He estimates that fewer than 30 percent of the 2.5 million students in Catholic schools nationwide are from low-income families. “Ultimately,” he said, “it’s a matter of increased costs.”

Chicago is a critical test case, Mr. Guerra said. The plan for the Chicago Archdiocese to close some schools as a way to make remaining ones more viable makes sense, he said, noting that many of the Catholic schools to remain open are below enrollment capacity.

“If they succeed, we will continue to serve a lot of children from low- and modest-income families,” Mr. Guerra said. “If those students don’t move to fill seats in the empty schools, what we will lose is largely the children of the poor and working class. That’s an outcome no one wants.”

Mr. Guerra and others are calling for more people in communities nationwide to help raise money to provide a Catholic education for children from low-income families.

Support Falls Short

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, wrote a commentary in the Feb. 13 issue of New York City’s Daily News urging alumni of Catholic schools and prominent New Yorkers to start a fund-raising campaign to keep urban Catholic schools open.

But it isn’t as if well-heeled residents in cities haven’t already tried to raise money to prop up Catholic schools in poor and working-class neighborhoods.

Since it was set up in 1986, the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago, a nonprofit organization independent of the archdiocese, has raised $138 million for Catholic schooling. This school year, it is giving $14 million to 103 of the neediest schools in the archdiocese.

The archdiocese subsidizes operating costs of its schools by about $6 million each school year.

Such financial support wasn’t enough to keep afloat the schools slated for closure here. In fact, 18 of the 23 schools scheduled to close are beneficiaries of Big Shoulders.

Most of the parents interviewed last week as they dropped off or retrieved their bundled-up children at three of the Catholic schools on the closure list—St. Felicitas School and St. Camillus School on the South Side, and Resurrection Catholic Academy in a northwest neighborhood—said they plan to seek other Catholic schools.

Each school’s share of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches ranges from 40 percent to 65 percent.

All three schools are located in neighborhoods that have a mix of blue-collar workers and professionals—and at least some Catholics. On average, 15.3 percent of the children attending the city’s Catholic schools aren’t Catholic.

Elizabeth Braxton said she sent her son, now a 3rd grader at Resurrection Catholic Academy, to a public school for his first three years of school and will definitely look for another Catholic school when the academy closes. “He experienced a lot of teasing in the public school,” she said. “For the first time, he feels accepted.”

“I’d like another Catholic school until I move to a better neighborhood,” said Krzysztof Weclewicz, a Polish immigrant whose daughter is a 2nd grader at St. Camillus.

With the upcoming flurry of school closures, Mr. Wolsonovich, the archdiocesan schools superintendent, is determined to improve the archdiocese’s record of retaining just 30 percent of children who are in schools that close. Archdiocesan officials plan to give to the parents from the closing schools an information packet to help them find Catholic schools nearby. At least five Catholic schools are located within a 3-mile radius of each Catholic school that will close, according to the archdiocese.

But de facto ethnic and racial boundaries in the city may dissuade some parents from trying another Catholic school, said Heidi Waltner-Pepper, the executive director of the Big Shoulders Fund. She wonders, for example, if parents from a particular school serving African-Americans that is closing will transfer their children to schools nearby that largely serve children of Irish, Italian, or Chinese heritage.

Changing Times

Eighteen of the schools slated for closure enroll a majority of black or Hispanic students, though 57 Catholic schools with similar demographics will remain open. Mr. Wolsonovich said schools were selected for closure based on location, enrollment, and financial health.

St. Felicitas, St. Camillus, and Resurrection Catholic Academy, for instance, have either debts or have been substantially subsidized by the archdiocese. All three schools have fewer than 175 pupils each, well below capacity.

Each of the schools stands on the same block as a Catholic church, but only St. Camillus receives any financial support—at least $200,000 this school year—from its parish.

Principals of the schools say they are losing students because parents can’t afford to pay the tuition, which averages $3,000 for elementary schools in the archdiocese. And gone are the days when parishes staffed their schools mostly with nuns and charged Catholic families next to nothing in tuition.

In 14 years, Rose Burke Mannion, the principal of Resurrection Catholic Academy, has seen enrollment drop by more than half, from 333 to 155 students. Her school received $225,000 from the archdiocese and Big Shoulders this school year toward its budget of about $1 million, she said.

The school has a number of marks of quality. Its preschool is nationally accredited. Student scores on standardized tests are strong, according to Ms. Mannion. And the NCEA recognized Ms. Mannion with a Distinguished Principal Award in 2001.

In contrast to St. Felicitas, which is located in a mostly African-American community with a dwindling number of Catholic children, Resurrection operates in a neighborhood that is largely Hispanic and Catholic.

Ms. Mannion said that while some Hispanic parents would like to enroll their children in a Catholic school but can’t afford the tuition, other Latino families don’t seem to see such an education as a high priority. That may be because they’ve gotten the impression in their home countries that Catholic schools are for the elite, she said.

“The three main public schools around us are packed to overcrowded,” Ms. Mannion said. “You’d think more [parents] would come forward and say, ‘What can you do for me?’ ”

Staying Viable

Meanwhile, St. Procopius Elementary School, located in the working-class Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, has managed to stay off the closure list.

Almost all the school’s students are Hispanic and Catholic, and 95 percent of them are from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

St. Procopius receives subsidies for operating costs and student scholarships from a local fund for youth, the archdiocese, the Jesuits of the Chicago Province, and the Big Shoulders Fund.

But St. Procopius School isn’t in debt, and its enrollment has climbed since the mid-1990s from about 160 students to 215 students today.

Thomas Denneen, the school’s director, believes that the two-way language-immersion program at the school and its engaging after-school offerings have helped distinguish it from other Catholic schools and increase enrollment.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Catholic Schools’ Mission To Serve Needy Children Jeopardized by Closings


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