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Helping Good Schools Save Themselves

By: Naomi Schaefer Riley 
October 9, 2014

Catholic schools work miracles — but they’re closing left and right. What can we do about it? And what can they do?

The latest proof that these schools are a boon to society is a survey by the Canadian company Cardus.

It’s well established that Catholic-school students, particularly urban ones, are much more likely to graduate high school than their public-school peers.

But Cardus shows that these institutions are also providing a better education in the “STEM” fields vital to the good jobs in the modern economy — science, technology, engineering and math.

The study looked at a nationally representative 1,500 people aged 24 to 39 who’d graduated high school.

It found that students in Catholic schools “took more advanced classes in science and math than their public school peers.” They were more likely to have taken geometry, trigonometry and calculus, as well as chemistry and physics.

The study authors note, “These findings may reflect the importance placed on a core academic curriculum for all students in Catholic schools.” No kidding.

Yet these schools operate far more cheaply than public schools do. New York City spends more than $20,000 per student in its often-horrible public schools; the city’s Catholic schools spend just $7,000 per kid.

Yet Catholic schools keep closing nationwide. And that’s a problem for all of us, because these schools educate so many non-Catholic kids. So how can we ensure their survival — or even their growth?

Many support increased public funding of these schools — tax credits or vouchers offered directly to parents struggling to get a good education for their kids.

Yet there’s also room for reform within. Notably, the Partnership for Inner City Education has stepped up to find ways to run Catholic schools better and more efficiently.

A little over a year ago, the Archdiocese asked the Partnership to manage six schools — three in Harlem and three in the South Bronx.

These are classic urban schools: All students are eligible for free lunch; 94 percent are black or Hispanic. The six together have a little over 2,100 students in grades K-8 — but enrollment’s been steadily dropping.

The Partnership aims to “develop Catholic schools that are strong operationally and financially by maximizing enrollment, improving efficiency .?.?. and stabilizing revenue sources.”

In other words, bring these schools up to the 21st century.

The first thing that the Partnership did, explains Executive Director Jill Kafka, was “separate the academics from the operations.”

She notes these were largely “mom and pop shops,” typically run by priests or teachers who’d been pushed into the position of principal. Yet that job involves making decisions about budgets and management that they had no experience with.

The Partnership hired operations managers, some with MBAs, to deal with the non-academic side of running a school.

It’s hard for a principal to be in charge of something like tuition. You want to talk to parents about their child’s educational prospects, but you also want to know why some tuition hasn’t been paid.

At some of these schools, notes Kafka, parents got in the habit of thinking tuition was optional.

Now there are Admissions and Development Associates at each school to ensure better communication between parents and the school.

As one parent told the Partnership, “When I come to this school, I know I’ll get respect.” Things haven’t gotten just more efficient, but also more personal.

There’s other updating. The teachers at the six schools are getting together to share best practices and ensure that curricula live up to high standards.

Each school no longer operates in a vacuum — teachers needn’t reinvent the wheel whenever they sit down to figure out what to cover in each lesson and how.

The schools now all have extensive and substantive after-school programs, including music, robotics and tutoring. They can work as a mini-district, competing against one another in basketball and chess, for instance.

They’re not cookie-cutter; one specializes in the arts, for instance. But all gain from being part of a network, says Kafka, who acknowledges copying some strategies from the KIPP charter network.

The Partnership, in turn, hopes to see other Catholic schools and dioceses steal from its successes.

Let’s hope it catches on.