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An Awesome Week to Work for Catholic Schools

Wednesday, October 07, 2015


What an awesome week to work for American Catholic schools.

For the last decade, every story I’ve seen about Catholic schools in the mainstream media has been a tale of decline and demise, a sad story about a once vibrant system of schools that has entered a phase of decline and is heading toward certain death. Just last month The Atlantic published “The Demise of Private Schools.” In 2013, the New York Times published, “A Lifelines for Minorities, Catholic Schools Retrench.” Time, 2009: “Looking for Solutions to the Catholic-School Crisis.” Education Week, 2012: “Catholic Schools Feeling Squeeze from Charters.” Education Next, 2007: “Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?.” Philadelphia Magazine, 2013: “Will Philadelphia’s Catholic school’s Be Resurrected?.” 

You get the idea.

A few weeks before the Pope’s visit, a journalist from USA Today called me to talk about the school visit — I think like many in the media, he was expecting Francis would be going to Harlem to lay flowers on the grave of a dying institution. But the superintendent of the New York Partnership Schools, Kathleen Porter-Magee, had introduced him to a different narrative. She told him about a growing movement of entrepreneurial school operators that are finding success in unlikely places in urban Catholic schools, and she encouraged him to look into the Notre Dame ACE Academies, Cristo Rey, the Jubilee Schools, and others.

Indeed, he was surprised to hear about the success of our partner schools in south Tucson, west Tampa, and Pinellas Park. And while he still couldn’t resist using the word “decline” in the headline of his article, I think he was better prepared than some of his colleagues for what happened at OLQA last week, when the Holy Father led a joyful, hope-filled parade to visit a newly invigorated community of children who represent the future of the faith. 

How refreshing was it to see stories in the news about Catholic schools this week that weren’t about retrenching or demise or decline? Instead, we saw pictures of smiling children, and good news about a school in East Harlem with growing enrollment and student achievement on the rise. As Pope Francis became the first pope to visit an American Catholic school in our nation’s history, it felt like he validated every decade of persistence and grit and faith and hope held by the communities that built and sustained and transformed Our Lady Queen of Angels and every school like it. 

So for the first time in over a decade, the dominant media story about Catholic schools is not an obituary — it’s an Easter story.

As Kathleen Porter-Magee suggested to the journalist from USA Today, this papal visit comes at such a providential moment for urban Catholic schools as well, and Francis couldn’t have chosen a better school to highlight the renewal that so many schools are experiencing. Education reform advocate and writer Andy Smarick argues that urban Catholic schools are on the cusp of a renaissance, citing the groundbreaking work of the Partnership for Inner-City Education schools in New York — parent consortium of the school Francis visited.

Smarick also cites as evidence of this renaissance the work of the Notre Dame ACE Academies, the Cristo Rey Network, the Seton Partner blended learning schools, and the Jubilee Schools in Memphis. He argues that there is more entrepreneurial energy being directed toward urban Catholic schools since they were founded by immigrant communities and religious women and men in the 19th century and mandated by the Third Baltimore Council in 1884. Porter-Magee echoed Smarick, talking about urban Catholic schools as “100-year old start-ups.” And when The Atlantic posted that article about the demise of Catholic schools, she tweeted “@TheAtlantic Our theme for the year: Don’t call it a comeback. We’ve been here for years!” 

She’s right, of course — Catholic schools have been here for years. But today there are far fewer of them than there were even 15 years ago. More than 2,000 Catholic schools have closed since the year 2000, so the articles about decline and demise aren’t completely unfounded. All the more reason to slaughter the fatted calf and celebrate in earnest. But we must not lose focus or diminish the sense of urgency that has yielded these remarkable recent gains. We should take the Pope’s visit to OLQA as a call to double-down our efforts to ensure that those gains last. We must ensure that this burgeoning renaissance actually burgeons.

The pope told the children of OLQA that “it is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for them.” Every time I read that, in my head I can’t help but hear that guy with the super deep voice from the NBC commercials ask, “At Notre Dame, we ask, ‘What would you fight for?’” It seems to me that the Pope, the vicar of Christ, successor to Peter, Pontifex Maximus, just asked us to fight for those kids and their schools.

For me, that made this one of the best weeks ever to work in and for American Catholic schools.