On Pope Francis’ itinerary when he visits the U.S. in September is a tour of a Partnership for Inner-City Education’s (the Partnership) school called Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, NYC. It is part of a network of 6 schools managed by the Partnership that is doing a great job combining the venerable Catholic K-12 school system with the innovation and enterprising spirit of the best charter schools.
The enrollment decline in Catholic schools in recent years has been well documented. In our own city, it is not unusual to find a beautiful old building that once housed a parish school now the home of a charter school or a non-Catholic religious school. Surely, some of this has been demographics, but increased competition from charter schools and robust networks of other private schools like our own LUMIN or HOPE Christian Schools has also contributed.
These competitors have for the most part been more aggressive and effective in making use of the opportunities new education policies have presented. Additionally, governance and business models have been updated, teacher training has been improved, and options like blended learning have been explored. Most Catholic schools, meanwhile, have not strayed far from the traditional approaches that existed when the United States Bishops called for their creation the 1880’s due to that era’s anti-Catholicism.
Despite this, Catholic schools still enroll about 40% of all private school students in the country.
By 2022, there will be about 3 million more pre-K-12 students in our country, and a lot of that growth includes Hispanic kids with Catholic backgrounds. So the potential market for schools is growing, and Pope Francis’ visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels may therefore be seen as a subtle clue to what his vision is of the Catholic school of the future.
In all fairness, a lot of exciting things are already being done in Catholic education in addition to the Partnership schools. We now have a Cristo Rey School in Milwaukee. The University of Notre Dame’s ACE Academies are also doing incredible work (I mention my visit to an ACE academy in a talk here). So great school models already exist which are seamlessly uniting the Catholic school tradition with 21st century opportunities. There are also a bevy of organizations to help all schools along the way: My own, for example,Schools that Can Milwaukee, and counterparts in other states.
So I think the future is bright for Catholic schools, especially if they continue to use the means at their disposal to improve what they have done well for generations as the Holy Father seems to be suggesting by his September visit.