Today begins Catholic schools week 2010.  It’s a good time, I think, to look at the past decade and to take a look ahead.

In the last decade we have watched Catholic school enrollment nation-wide drop by nearly half a million students (460,507), the vast majority from elementary schools. Nearly 1,500 Catholic schools closed nation-wide.  Thanks to the NCEA for the helpful, though sobering data.  It was a tough decade.

There are now 7,248 Catholic schools with a national enrollment of 2,192,531 students.

So where does that leave us today, at the beginning of Catholic schools week 2010?  We are looking at a lingering recession, tightening state budgets, a growing national debt, and persistently high unemployment rates.  It ain’t about to get much easier.

Instead of venturing a prediction for what the next 10 years hold in store, I prefer a call to action.   I would rather say what the next decade must look like, if we are going to preserve these national treasure that have served our Church, our nation and our children for the last 200 years.

In the next 10 years, as a Catholic community, we must seek to do the following:

1. Double the percentage of Latino children attending Catholic schools, from 3 to 6 percent, thus raising Hispanic enrollment in Catholic schools to 1,000,000. Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education is leading the charge here, by stating this goal and launching the Catholic School Advantage Campaign to work with the national Church and school system to achieve it.  Of practicing Catholics under the age of 35, nearly 70% are Latino…they are the future of the Church.  Catholic schools must reach and effectively serve Hispanic children in the next 10 years.

2. Quadruple the number of students benefiting from school choice programs (vouchers and tax credits) and quadruple the number of states with choice programs in the next 10 years. In the 2008-09 school year, approximately 171,000 children were participating in 18 school choice programs in 10 states and the District of Columbia.  This is up from a little over 90,000 students participating in 8 programs in 5 states five years earlier.  In other words, these programs have been expanding rapidly and they must continue to do so.  Where voucher and tax credit programs exist, Catholic schools are fairing better (Data from Alliance for School Choice).

3. Double the number of local, independently run, private scholarship organizations exclusively serving Catholic schools and increase the capacity of existing programs. Though I may be missing some, I’m counting 8 such scholarship funds currently in existence (tell me if I’ve missed any!).  This leaves dozens upon dozens of major arch/dioceses throughout the U.S. that do not have an organization to help provide scholarships to low-income children to attend Catholic schools.  This simply must change.

  1. Big Shoulders Fund (Chicago)
  2. Catholic Education Foundation (Los Angeles)
  3. Central City School Fund (Kansas City)
  4. Crossroads Foundation (Pittsburgh)
  5. Fulcrum Foundation (Seattle)
  6. Futures in Education (Brooklyn and Queens)
  7. Inner-City Scholarship Fund (Boston)
  8. Scholarship Fund for Inner-City Children (New Jersey)

4. Double the number of Marketing, Recruitment and Developing directors in Catholic schools. I have no idea what the current numbers are, though it would be a worth-while research project to figure this out.  Adding this position has proven to help enrollment, and enrollment is the number one concern of a Catholic school struggling to remain financially viable.  Catholic schools must develop a recruiting and marketing mentality in the next decade.

5. Dramatically increase the number of blogs about Catholic schools and Catholic education. Doubling would be far too easy, because there are only 2 or 3 of them now.  This is indicative of the absence of an urgently needed conversation about solutions among the wider Catholic community.  Too few people are talking about this crisis in the American Church.  Let’s take our lead from the Pope, who urged priests to become bloggers and embrace modern media.

That’s enough.  There are a lot more that we will need to do, everything from improving boards, to changing governance models, inventing new school models, to expanding the role of Catholic universities, training more and better teachers and school leaders, to expanding and exploring the capacity of technology to improve quality and reduce costs, expanding pre-k programs, to improving and expanding after-school programs, updating facilities, to improving curriculum and instruction – especially in the areas of catechesis and religious education which embody the essential purpose and critical mission of Catholic schools… but if we can at least do the five things listed above, we’ll be better off in the next decade than in the last.  If we can at least do these five things, we will have a sound foundation on which to build Catholic education in the U.S. for future generations.

Happy Catholic schools week.