In Need of a Vision. "A people without vision will perish."
This ancient proverb rings true in every age, but it seems particularly well suited for the state of 21st Century Catholic schools in the United States. With a population of over 70 million that has collectively reached levels of social stature and wealth unimaginable by previous generations, the American Catholic community does not lack the resources to sustain and strengthen its school system.
What is lacking in too many places is the vision of what can be possible, and the willingness to reaffirm age-old values through creative means.
For well over one hundred years, the one-parish-one-school model dominated the U.S. Catholic education landscape. Ethnic enclaves, especially in the urban core of industrial cities, served the needs of immigrants and formed generations of people who were both Catholic and American – a feat thought by many to be impossible.
Today, we see an American Catholic landscape altered in important ways. Changing demographics, financial realities, and an evolving commitment of American Catholics to their schools have left many empty classroom seats and the closing, moving, or merging of hundreds of schools. In many places, parents, pastors, principals, and teachers exhibit nothing less than heroic virtue as they work to keep their schools strong and accessible, and they are increasingly turning to novel school configurations in order to offer the finest Catholic education to their community.
Vision in Kenosha: St. Joseph Catholic Academy. Kenosha, Wisconsin, is not unlike scores of cities, suburbs and small towns across the northern United States. Waves of Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries built parishes and schools, seeking to maintain their faith and culture. Good jobs were to be had in the city’s successful automobile manufacturing industry, and the community generously made their faith manifest by investing in bricks and mortar for parishes and schools. Today, ten parishes minister to Kenosha’s Catholic community, and creative thinking is leading to innovation in the diverse Catholic school system of this region.
In order to better serve the people of Kenosha, three parishes joined forces in 2010 to establish St. Joseph Catholic Academy, a Pre-K through 12th grade Catholic institution. By combining St. Mark’s Elementary School, St. Joseph Inter-Parish Junior High, and St. Joseph High School, the new Academy provides increased options and resources for families, and currently enrolls 660 students. The curriculum includes the state of Wisconsin’s only Pre-K Catholic Montessori program, an enhanced arts instruction, and other programs seen infrequently in Catholic schools.
Bob Freund, the Academy’s founding president, says that St. Joseph Catholic is a product of parents, pastors, and educators who have a great vision for what is possible. “Our community is committed to ensuring that Catholic education remains available, faithful, and excellent. We believe that we can accomplish more when we collaborate.”
And St. Joseph Catholic is certainly doing exciting things. With a school-wide commitment to Catholic identity and critical thinking skills, the Academy is leveraging resources in ways that would have been impossible amongst three distinct, much smaller schools.
“Our campus minister works with the entire Academy, coordinating prayer, liturgy, and service for the every single class. That’s very important for our mission as a Catholic school, especially as we work to keep each student connected to their family’s parish,” said Freund. Children in kindergarten through fifth grade are exposed to four world languages, studying Spanish, French, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese for nine weeks each year. And the Academy integrates technology into teaching: building on a program already in place in the middle school, soon each student in grades six through twelve will have access to a laptop for use during the school day.
With one administration, one business office, and a streamlined curriculum, St. Joseph Catholic is able to achieve efficiencies – educational and financial - that were elusive in the past. And, parents are pleased: the Academy saw a 20 percent enrollment increase this year over the total number of students enrolled at the three separate schools during 2009–2010.
The road to the Academy’s current configuration was not always easy, and resistance was met in some quarters. Freund and other community leaders realized that an outside, objective study of the possibilities would be immeasurably useful to the success of this emerging institution. “We invited ACE Consulting from Notre Dame to perform an assessment of our situation, and their study was absolutely invaluable. Commissioning the ACE Consulting report was the most important thing we did as we considered this transition.” ACE Consulting examined local demographic trends, facilities, finances, as well as the perceptions of the local Catholic and parent communities. “Their unbiased analysis provided a perfect road map for us. I can’t tell you how often we refer to their report.”
Currently, St. Joseph is reaffirming its commitment to the vision of offering a high quality Catholic education to all families in Kenosha who desire it by launching an ambitious strategic planning exercise. Focusing on the areas of Catholic identity, academics, leadership, development, and facilities, the new Academy model is charting a bold path toward the future.
Freund believes that the tenor of conversations in the community about Catholic education has changed dramatically over the last two years. “The mood had always been about survival. Now, the feeling can be described as confidence. We’re excelling. We’re moving forward.”
No one formula or school configuration will serve every situation, family, or parish. But the vision of making Catholic schools faithful, excellent, and accessible – which is the work of the entire community – is a vision well worth pursuing. Collaboration between multiple parishes will increasingly be an important strategy worth watching.
Utilizing the nearly two decades of experience in educating teachers and leaders through the ACE program, ACE Consulting helps operationalize the work of the Alliance for Catholic Education to make a system-wide difference in Catholic education. Learn more by visiting the ACE Consulting website.