Why Catholic Schools Are Closing: How a Once Mighty Brand Got Diminished
Catholic Schools: Trying to Be All Things to All People
What's your immediate reaction when you open a dinner menu and it includes eclectic items such as fish and chips, tacos, chow mein, fondue, spaghetti, crepes, and gyros? If you're like me, you probably think the restaurant lacks an identity, is attempting to do too much, and the food will be mediocre at best. Restaurants like these – striving to be all things to all people – remind me of my experience teaching at an inner-city Catholic school. Instead of maintaining its academic excellence and solid religious instruction, the school moved away from its original mission by trying to accommodate everyone. In today's marketing lingo, this Catholic school failed at “branding” by squandering away what distinguished it from the pack. Watering down their original promise and trying to be all things to all people has led to the downfall of Catholic schools, especially in our inner-cities.
Catholic Schools Once Stood for Discipline, Academic Rigor, and High Standards But Not Any More
Catholic Schools in the 1970s: A Strong Brand With a Powerful Purpose
Monday through Friday I'd put on the same salt and pepper pleated skirt, white buttoned-down blouse with Peter Pan collar, knee-high knit socks, and black and white saddle shoes. It was my Catholic school uniform – an outfit that marked my membership in an educational community of shared faith, strict discipline, and academic excellence.
It was the 1970s in Oakland, California, an epicenter of social change: hippies protesting the Vietnam War, young people taking full advantage of the sexual revolution, women shifting from domestic lives to the work force, and the Black Panthers aiming to take political control of the city – through violent and non-violent means. With increased crime, racial tension, and decaying schools, the '70s were a period of “white flight” as Caucasians left Oakland for the suburbs with their safe neighborhoods, choice schools, and new-sprung shopping centers.
For middle-class families like mine that stayed in Oakland, Catholic schools were a haven from crime and chaos and an affordable alternative to public schools. Lauded for providing a superior education while being cost efficient, employing fewer administrators, encouraging academic rigor, demanding respectful behavior from students, and allowing God in the classroom, Catholic schools were riding high in the '60 and '70s.
Catholic Schools Had a Strong Brand in the '60s and '70s But Then It Started to Diminish
A Catholic School Education: Defining My Childhood and Building My Character
Attending a Catholic elementary school during the 1970s defined my childhood. I experienced a real sense of community there – a true feeling of belonging. The religious traditions inspired me, filled me with awe, and gave meaning to my life: the first Friday Masses with the entire student body in attendance , the Christmas pageant celebrating the birth of Jesus, the May Crowning when we honored the Blessed Mother, the Stations of the Cross during Lent, the blessed sacraments of First Holy Communion, Reconciliation , and Confirmation. It all made me feel like I was part of something greater than myself and that our Catholic community had the power to change the world.
The Catholic school brand was crystal clear to everyone, Catholic or not: academic excellence, firm discipline, and solid religious instruction. The nuns ruled with an iron fist and our Principal, Sister Clara Anne, reminded us constantly that our school had a long waiting list. If you misbehaved, you were out and replaced with someone who'd make the most of the opportunity. This was a real threat to us because we loved our school, respected our teachers, and valued our religious community.
Catholic Schools in the '90s: A Brand in Decline
In high school and college, I searched for a place to belong but could never find anything that compared to my Catholic elementary school. After earning my teaching credential, I landed a kindergarten job at a Catholic school in Oakland. I was finally going home.
Unbeknown to me, however, Catholic schools had declined while I was gone. According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) Catholic school enrollment had peaked in the '60s with more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 schools across the country. But, by 1990 when I started teaching, it had dropped dramatically to 2.5 million students in 8,719 schools. Catholic schools were struggling and their once powerful brand was now diminished, especially at inner-city schools like the one where I taught.
More disconcerting to me than the falling numbers throughout the nation was what I experienced first-hand at my new school. It was unrecognizable from the Catholic school I had attended as a kid.
Catholic Schools Lost a Big Chunk of Their Identity When Nuns Faded Away
Catholic Schools -- Then and Now
The nuns were gone. Half my teachers had been sisters, but at my new school, the entire faculty consisted of lay teachers. Today, only 2.6 percent of Catholic school teachers are nuns.
There was no connection between the school and the parish. When I was a kid, everybody knew our pastor, Monsignor Tillman, because he visited the school often – handing out report cards, helping with discipline, and teaching religion classes to the eighth graders. The pastor at my new school never visited and was never present at any faculty events. Gone was the strong bond between school and parish that created our faith community.
We didn't celebrate first Friday Mass. This had been one of my favorite rituals as a kid when the entire student body gathered to attend Mass. Classes took turns planning the service – choosing songs, doing the readings, and preparing a banner or skit. I missed these monthly Masses at my new school, their absence further weakening our identity as a religious community.
In my kindergarten class, I had no religion books for the students and no teacher's manual for myself. How could I adequately teach the Catholic curriculum when I had no materials? In the seven years I worked there, we had no faculty training on how to teach religion.
The faculty had no religious rituals to unite us. During my first year of teaching, the faculty attended a spiritual retreat in September that established us as a faith community and energized us for the school year. However, for the next six years, we had no spiritual retreats. The only religious ritual we shared was a prayer at the beginning of our weekly faculty meeting.
The seventh and eighth graders did not lead. When I attended Catholic school, the older students led by setting a good example for the younger children. They had special responsibilities such as being altar servers, traffic patrol guards, student government officers, and office helpers. They helped with the lights and sound at school productions. They planned school-wide events such as carnivals, bake sales, and the annual Halloween haunted house. By helping the younger kids, these teenagers became less self-centered and more caring. At my new school, I rarely saw the seventh and graders and never interacted with them. They had no connection with my kindergarten students at all. They were just your basic teens – focused on themselves and miserable because of it. They weren't reaping the benefits of being at a Catholic school with a wide-range of ages.
The “extras” that made school fun were gone. When I attended Catholic school, we had two weekly enrichment classes that I always looked forward to doing: music and folk dancing. At my new school, we were bare-bones with no enrichment classes.
The Brand Gets Blurry and Schools Start to Close, Especially in the Inner-Cities
Catholic Schools in the '90s: An Unrecognizable Brand
People respected the Catholic school brand of the '60s and '70s that stressed academic excellence , firm discipline, and a solid religious foundation. Middle-class parents like mine sacrificed to send their children to Catholic schools because they knew, without a doubt, good behavior would be demanded and bad behavior wouldn't be tolerated. Learning would take place without the interruptions that occurred regularly in public schools where students talked back to teachers, used foul language, and got into fights.
However, in the '90s at my new school, everything had flipped. Our Catholic school was now the dumping ground for kids who weren't succeeding academically and behaviorally at the nearby public schools. Parents did not choose our school for its academic rigor or religious instruction but because it was their backup plan. With the nuns gone, a small but vocal group of lay teachers at our school was pushing an agenda by which no child would ever be denied a Catholic education. All standards had been cast aside.
In my kindergarten classroom, I needed a psychiatry degree to handle the multitude of issues ranging from ADHD to PTSD, from autism to attachment disorder, from mild mental retardation to intermittent explosive disorder. The policy at our school was to accept everyone just as public schools did. However, unlike public schools, we didn't receive government funds. We had no special education instructors and no resource room. We didn't have the money or the staff to offer the services these students needed: counseling, occupational and speech therapy, direct instruction, one-on-one tutoring, and small group lessons.
Four or five disruptive students in my class took up an unreasonable amount of my time and energy. I felt sorry for the well-behaved children and for their parents, who still believed in the Catholic school brand of old and were sacrificing to send their kids to our school.
Re-building the Brand: Is There Hope for the Future?
After decades of decline, the Catholic church has finally recognized the errors it has made with its schools and is starting to rebuild its once enviable brand. Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis wrote in a 2011 pastoral letter:
“It must be clearly and unquestionably a Catholic school and everything about the school's academic and formation programs must be grounded in the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Every person in a Catholic school – regardless of his or her faith tradition or social, economic, or ethnic background – should be growing in their understanding and appreciation for what the Catholic Church teaches.”
Since the Catholic school brand has deteriorated so greatly, the Church has a big challenge ahead of it. By trying to be all things to all people, Catholic schools have provided an inferior service for many years and have lost the trust of many formerly die-hard believers such as me. I no longer teach at a Catholic school nor did I choose to send my sons to one. The downfall of Catholic schools started when their original message got so watered down it became virtually nonexistent. Hopefully, with time and hard work, Catholic schools will rebuild their brand and be admired once again.
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