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Can Catholic parish schools be saved?

Angst is coursing through our Catholic community following the closure of Queen of Heaven’s K-8 school a few months ago. While some are dishearteningly musing whether this hearkens the demise of our Catholic parish schools, many of the remaining Catholic schools are gleefully welcoming the displaced students to bolster steadily declining enrollment.

Catholic schools have been under pressure for decades. Enrollment has fallen about 25% since 2005. Public charter schools, which focus on educational quality, have been a factor in luring families away from Catholic schools.

The Catholic clergy sexual-abuse scandal and the many diocesan bankruptcies across the country have staggered the faithful everywhere, especially in New Mexico with its large Catholic population. A recent Wall Street Journal article states that 37% of U.S. Catholics said the abuse crisis had led them to question their membership. What’s more, there is a nationwide movement to deemphasize or eliminate religion in American life, especially among young, politically liberal folks. All of these factors are contributing to the diminishing enrollment in Catholic schools.

One solution, some experts say, is the consolidation of smaller parish schools into fewer but larger schools, Catholic charter schools that would operate independently from the parish communities in which they reside. The most persuasive argument for consolidation is economics. Fewer, large schools would allow limited educational resources to be available to more students.

However, Catholic charter schools would lose essential educational characteristics. Catholic schools have been successful because they have integrated academic training with an understanding of the basic tenets of Catholic Christianity within the parish community.

As parish institutional members, Catholic schools have taught students to serve the community through parish ministries. Students learn that the church is not only a building for worship but is a social gathering place for members, a place of enjoyment and fun, counsel for life’s adverse events, solitude when needed, and to organize the efforts of Christian charity. It is dubious whether this outcome can be achieved under the Catholic Charter school model.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, operating behind its cloak of secrecy, appears to possess no publicly obvious conceptual or operational policy on this issue.

Some Archdiocesan Catholic K-8 schools are highly successful applying the parish school model. For example, Our Lady of the Annunciation Parish, led by Monsignor Bennett J. Voorhies, operates a large, traditional parish school. The school is integral to the parish, the principal is a parishioner and many parents of students are members of the parish family. Annunciation students learn about Catholicism by working directly with parishioners.

Others, many of which are struggling, have operated for years as virtual Catholic Charter schools on parish properties. In some of these institutions, a majority of the parents and faculty are not parishioners and a few are not affiliated with any Catholic parish. In at least one school, the principal is not a member of the parish where the school resides.

There are some important ways to preserve and enhance the traditional Catholic parish-school system. The most important one is training for new or inexperienced pastors who are assigned to parishes with schools. Currently, pastors learn by trial and error how to run a parish school, but most schools cannot afford mistakes.

Parish schools should be marketed aggressively, first to the parish, then to other parishes without schools. The marketing message should focus on the unique moral and spiritual values that are taught in a Catholic school along with the importance of serving in the parish community.

All parish-schools should be fully integrated in the parishes, starting with the principal, a parishioner who regularly attends Sunday Mass and leads students in parish activities. The principal and pastor should team in planning the school’s development and marketing activities.

The demise of Queen of Heaven School should not be viewed as the start of the end, but the impetus for the revival of our Catholic parish school system that has served communities well for centuries.

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