Read Part I: Sr. Mary Paul and the Grace of Growth
This past school year, enrollments grew for the third year in a row in Chicago Catholic Schools, ending a decades-long trend of decline. More importantly, much of the growth occurred in schools that serve the communities most in need, where steady enrollment can be the most challenging.
Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, Superintendent of Chicago Catholic Schools, credits the increase in enrollment to the leadership of principals and pastors, Archdiocesan donors, and organizations like the Big Shoulders Fund, which provides financial support for Catholic schools in under-resourced neighborhoods. In her view, a spirit of collaboration and a renewed sense of purpose have rallied these supporters in their efforts to make a Catholic education available and affordable for more students. By strategically coordinating support, the Archdiocese has kept schools available in the most challenged areas and accessible to the children who most need them.
Though growth is still modest, Sister Mary Paul calls these last few years “turning the ocean liner.” The increased enrollments act as indicators of a wider and more systemic transformation for Catholic schools – the entire ocean liner heading in a new direction.
In March of 2013, the School Board of the Archdiocese published a strategic plan to examine the success stories of the past three years and outline a plan to build on these examples. The plan suggests that leveraging strong leadership at the principal and pastor level, promoting best-practices for financial viability, and enhancing both Catholic identity and academic offerings have all been essential to renewing growth.
For example, the strategic plan shares the story of St. John Streamwood. Just a few years ago, the school struggled to serve its students, and in 2010 alone, enrollment fell by 28 students. This left the school depending on subsidy and loans at a time when the parish itself was challenged financially. However, with a new pastor and principal appointed to leadership positions, the school developed a strategic plan and revamped the budget with the help of a strong business manager. The principal worked with teachers to develop a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum, which centered on themes of ecology and stewardship of the earth. The school leaders decided to prioritize scholarship funding and sought help to improve their marketing efforts – both to enhance the schools reputation and to increase awareness of the school and its affordability.
As a result, enrollment increased from 188 in 2010 to 272 in 2013. In the same time period, the aid that St. John Streamwood receives from the Archdiocese decreased from $200,000 to $0.
For Sr. Mary Paul, schools like St. John Streamwood offers signs of hope – and clear blueprints for how to change the narrative in a struggling school. Furthermore, when the leaders of a school like St. John Streamwood share their story with colleagues across the Archdiocese, Sister Mary Paul says that she can see the hope sparked within educators, principals, and pastors. While they might have previously been lamenting their own challenges, she explains, they come to her and ask, “Do you think that I could do this too? Maybe God is calling me to do this.”
Sister Mary Paul explains that renewal becomes a real possibility for educators when they “see this modeled around them and know that there (will) be resources for them.” This transformation and renewal occur both in entire schools and in the spirits of the educators working within them. “I have seen these great sites that were ready to be shuttered – now flipped and turned around in the last three, four years, but I’ve also seen those who were just tired, who are deciding to be reenergized and to rediscover shared leadership.”
The strategic plan also illustrates a clear plan to attracting new and talented leaders, principals, and high-quality teachers to Catholic schools. Sister Mary Paul points to the number of young, lay educators finding vocations in Chicago’s Catholic Schools as a success to build on in future years and a testament to the power and grace present in the schools and the students themselves.
“I think that’s been a tremendous tribute to the schools where young couples are staying,” Sister Mary Paul explains, “and a tremendous tribute to ACE at Notre Dame with the Catholic School Advantage campaign.”
The Catholic School Advantage campaign, launched by the Alliance for Catholic Education in response to a 2009 Notre Dame Task Force, aims to improve educational opportunities for Latino students. In Chicago, Juana Sanchez Graber, Field Consultant for the campaign, works to help schools raise awareness in Hispanic communities, tailor their marketing and communications efforts, and utilize madrinas (and padrinos) programs to spread the word about school availability and build bridges into Hispanic neighborhoods and communities.
In the coming 2013-2014 academic year, the University of Notre Dame and the Alliance for Catholic Education will also send the first ACE Teaching Fellows community to Chicago, to help provide talented young teachers and future leaders to Chicago Catholic Schools.
For Sister Mary Paul, it’s an exciting partnership. “I’ve always had a great love for Notre Dame, and a respect for the ACE program,” she explains, “I had followed it for twenty years since its founding, and always had kind of a nagging ‘Why not Chicago? Why not Chicago?’ So to have it come to Chicago and in really such a vibrant way (…) I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for us.”
Much like the success of these past few years, in Sister Mary Paul’s view, the future of Catholic Schools in Chicago will continue to rely on renewing the entire system through strategic collaboration and belief in the big changes.
“I am deeply grateful to Fr. Scully for his vision - and to that whole ACE team, really -for continuing to wrap their services, not just around the individuals who they might be coming to influence, but to profoundly influence a system. So it’s a very powerful thing for me to see the engagement of our university, particularly through the ACE programs.”
Read Part I: Sr. Mary Paul and the Grace of Growth