School choice programs have made significant progress toward serving more students in states across the country this past year; by Forbes contributor Mike McShane’s count, 18 states have established seven new programs and expanded 21 existing programs. The Wall Street Journal and EdWeek have noted the increase as well. The programs’ expansion is a cause for celebration among Catholic schools like ours, which are dedicated to providing families of modest means the same range of school options—including faith-based schools—that wealthy families have.
In his Forbes article, McShane cautions that “The work is only beginning. It is now incumbent on advocates and educators to make these programs successful. It is not as thrilling as eleventh-hour legislative negotiation, but it is now about parent outreach and program administration if we want these programs to deliver on their promises advocates made to families and taxpayers.”
Partnership Schools’ experience affirms the importance of what happens next. We know first-hand that school choice programs are necessary, but they alone are not “a silver bullet” for helping either working-class Catholic schools or the students they serve to thrive, as Partnership Assistant Superintendent Christian Dallavis mentioned last fall to Tim Uhl on his podcast. As Uhl also cautioned, “school choice doesn’t always mean schools are going to flourish.” In addition to exceptional academics and vibrant, nurturing school cultures, we’ve found three factors crucial for translating the availability of scholarships, be they publicly or privately funded, into the game-changing force in students’ lives that both we and school choice advocates hope for.
In their first year in the Partnership this past year, our network’s two Cleveland schools did indeed flourish, increasing enrollment over thirty percent—an astounding turnaround and one for which Cleveland’s publicly funded scholarships were necessary but not sufficient. The prior year, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas was slated for closure, even though the scholarships were available then. It has taken significant outreach and changes to both methods and mindsets to move the needle.
As Partnership mom Briana McMullins explained to a reporter last fall, what she heard about Catholic schools didn’t leave her hopeful about them as options for her two sons, one a third grader with a diagnosis of ADHD. She sensed that Catholic schools “were strict. They charged tuition. Most would reject her kids Jaideyn and Jordan, so what was the point of even trying?” Without outreach, parents like her often don’t know that their children can attend tuition-free (in Cleveland) or thrive with us, as her boys have done in the last year at St. Thomas Aquinas. We share more about those outreach efforts here.
As we detailed in a report this winter, a hard, humble look at the barriers families face to entry has also been crucial for our schools to translate publicly funded scholarship policy into life-changing practice. We found, for example, that well over eighty percent of families who do not complete the necessary paperwork in the first week after inquiring with us never go on to enroll. So it was incumbent upon us to make the process simpler, and to think hard about other barriers that might need to be removed so that we can align our admissions with our faith in every child.
Aligning Mindsets with Our Faith
What Christian Dallavis shared with Tim Uhl back in the fall remains true today: “it is an enormous privilege and an honor for us to be able to welcome every new kid in our room who wants to be there. And it’s not just that we need that kid to cushion our margins, but rather, we need that kid because we have a unique capacity to put that kid on a path to college and heaven. And if we really believe that, that’s a culture shift that can change the way we do business.”
One indication of that culture showed up earlier this month in a Tweet from Jessica Aybar, principal of the Partnership’s St. Athanasius School in the Bronx.
We just reached 350 students enrolled at @StAthanasiusBX for 21-22; a number that at one time was only a dream! We are so excited and blessed to serve our students. #allarewelcome #catholicschoolrenaissance @PartnershipPost pic.twitter.com/KMpeafb7HK
— Jess Aybar (@AthanasiusAybar) July 1, 2021
Living out that hashtag “#allarewelcome” requires all the wise curriculum choices, strong pedagogy, intentional culture and day-to-day hard work we can muster. It is also the way that our work takes on a higher purpose—of building community and contributing to our own salvation, rather than simply providing a high-caliber education with a few religious accents.
In New York, 68 percent of Partnership families are eligible for free or reduced lunch but must still pay a portion of their tuition, because New York is not yet one of the states that gives low-income families a shot at the same school choices wealthy families have. Nevertheless, our New York schools have poured their efforts into the same outreach and reduction of barriers that our Cleveland schools have. Thus, whether states have public funding for all parents’ school choices or not, the task for Catholic schools remains the same: to reach out, to reduce barriers, and to live out our mission as the privilege and blessing it is.
Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.