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Archbishop Dolan of New York (the newly-elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) recently wrote in Catholic New York on the decision to end subsidies to thirty-one schools, effectively forcing them to close.  In his standard take-neither-prisoners-nor-guff style, he sums up the challenges facing Catholic schools and expounds on possible solutions – which, if you ask him, include closing some schools:

Simply put, if we do not close, consolidate, and merge some of them, all will eventually be at risk. To do nothing is actually to do something: accept the decline and eventual demise of our schools. That we will not do.

Amen.  Specifically, he presents “4 R’s” Catholic schools need to adopt in order to continue: realism, resignation, respect, and resolve.  It’s a straight-forward, unblinking, and unapologetic assertion of the reasoning in Pathways to Excellence.  Whatever concerns or praise there is for the plan, the man in charge intends to follow through with every bit of his integrity.

While Archbishop Dolan is assertive, I am picky.  I appreciate the archbishop’s alliterative efforts in the tradition of “Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic”, but his choice of “resigned” makes me about as uncomfortable as “’rithmatic” (though for different reasons).  I’m sure he meant something akin to realism, something like “acceptance”, and in that was referring specifically to the practical necessity of discontinuing the archdiocesan subsidy to those thirty-one schools.  In other words, it is what it is.  Still, “resigned” connotes giving up, the exact opposite of the commitment he’s trying to encourage.  In context with realism and resolve, there’s not much danger, but likewise in that context, it might have been left out.  Resolve and realism are the keys to the argument.  Just me?

Meanwhile, most attention-grabbing was this brief throwaway line:

We want to avoid the “blame game.” Yes, some blame those Catholic parents who do not send their children to our excellent schools. (If only 10% more of them did, by the way, our schools would be filled)

Pardon my stating the obvious, but considering the current national enrollment of Catholic schools, if just 10% more would fill our schools, that means a really small portion of Catholic parents are sending their kids to Catholic school now.  We know that, of course, which is why we’re seeing more efforts like the campaign Archbishop Dolan summarizes:

  • aggressive marketing;
  • intense improvement of test scores in math and science;
  • reinforcing vigorous Catholic identity;
  • recruitment, training, and retention of first-rate principals and faculty;
  • robust regional collaboration;
  • higher enrollments, especially among our Latino students;
  • development of pre-and after-care programs in our schools;
  • looking into longer school days and a more extended school year;
  • expanding availability of scholarships.

Whatever misgivings there may be about the Pathways to Excellence plan, it’s encouraging to see a leader take an unmistakable stand and force his Catholic schools out of the status quo.  What might happen if more bishops followed suit?



Dr. Timothy McNiff and Archbishop Timothy Dolan have a tough road ahead in the Archdiocese of New York. They are tasked with bringing a network of 185 independently managed, mostly urban, private Catholic schools that have been losing enrollment (= no cash flow) into solvency, sustainability and health.

Though there could hardly be two more capable and ardent supporters of Catholic education than Archbishop Dolan and Dr. McNiff, though they have formulated an ambitious plan to try to establish a foundation upon which to build and sustain the future of Catholic education in New York, this remains a very difficult task, and one that will get much harder before it gets easier.

There are 32 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York assessed to be at risk and that are likely to lose their archdiocesan subsidy.  For many, this will mean inevitable closure in the coming months.  Catholic school closures are always extremely emotional, especially for the parents and children at the schools, the parishioners, alumni and local residents. As difficult as it is to say, this is the right decision.  Archdiocesan leaders need to  use limited resources wisely to continue to serve sustainable and viable Catholic schools.  Unfortunately, too often this means closing some schools that simply are no longer viable.

“These under-enrolled schools require significant financial support from the archdiocese, which cannot be sustained indefinitely,” said Dr. Timothy McNiff, schools superintendent for the archdiocese, which yesterday released its list of “at risk” schools.

“We need to allocate our resources where they can do the most good, and support schools that can sustain themselves over time,” said McNiff, whose 185-school system is in the midst of a massive reconfiguration.”

Here is a helpful summary from the AP.

NEW YORK (AP) — The Archdiocese of New York has released a list of 32 struggling Catholic schools that could be forced to close under a plan that would strip them of financial subsidies.

The list of “at-risk” schools released Tuesday, includes 15 schools in New York City and 17 schools in Westchester and upstate counties. All but one are elementary schools.

The Archdiocese says the schools, which contain 4,561 students, have seen a decline in enrollment of 34 percent over the past five years.

Under the plan, principals and pastors at the “at-risk” schools will be allowed to argue that their schools should continue receiving subsidies. Archbishop Timothy Dolan will then make a final decision in January, 2011.

Ultimately, this is not a solution, even if it is a necessary strategy towards a healthy Catholic school system in New York.  A leader in Catholic education once said, “Downsizing is not a vision.”  Ultimately, we need to push the solutions that will change the dire conditions in which Catholic schools are struggling to survive.  The plan of the Archdiocese of New York (Pathways to Excellence) is guided by a strong vision and strong leaders, and it will be an important case to watch and to learn from in the months and years ahead.  But over the long term, I continue to be affirmed in the conviction that little can replace good public policy that makes Catholic schools accessible to all families through vouchers and tax-credits and that levels the playing field for schools to compete and for  families to chose the best school options for their kids.

Archbishop Dolan is in the news, yet again.  And so is Waiting for Superman.

In a timely and thoughtful Daily News article, Archbishop Dolan offers a great insight on the importance of  K-12 Catholic education as ed reformers search desperately for a superhero.

Consider the following:

Superman is already here – and he’s waiting in the classrooms of New York’s Catholic schools.

If only the film had focused some of its attention on what is happening in our inner-city Catholic schools. I can’t help but be proud of what we have accomplished here in New York. Last June, 99% of our high school seniors graduated, and 96% pursued college.

These results are even more impressive considering Catholic schools serve the same demographic as public schools. Nearly 70% of children attending our inner-city Catholic schools come from families living at or below the federal poverty level, and 94% of our students are minorities. As reformers debate whether high-quality charter schools or traditional public schools better serve low-income children, Catholic schools should not be left shouting on the sidelines.

While the students in our schools have become more diverse over the years, the purpose of Catholic education remains the same. We provide a values-based, academically excellent and nurturing school to our children. Yes, we proudly teach our students about the Catholic faith, yet we also serve children of all faiths, or none at all, respect each of their backgrounds and care equally about their future.

Our schools still do a remarkable job with children – and they desperately need support from wider society.

To quote the Archbishop, Superman is indeed waiting.  And he could definitely use our help.

In other news, the Archdiocese of New York’s Office of the Superintendent of Schools just released the strategic plan discussed in an earlier post.  To download the plan, follow the link off this page. Might this bold vision for centralized financing represent the future of K-12 Catholic education in other urban areas?