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Telling Essential Catholic School Stories

The twin uncertainties of the pandemic and the economic downturn have challenged our Catholic school leaders to more clearly articulate the value proposition of their schools.  At their apex, Catholic schools educated 12 percent of school aged children.  Today, Catholic schools educate fewer than five percent.  And, given the expansion of high quality private, public, and charter school choices, when faced with an economic crisis like we’re in today, many families question whether they can afford Catholic school tuition.

In this moment of crisis, Catholic leaders around the country are struggling to find the right way to communicate the value of a Catholic education.  Ironically, the struggle to find the right marketing message comes exactly when Catholic schools have proven more nimbly able to adapt to the challenges of distance learning than so many other schools and districts.  But the reality is, to change hearts and minds requires more than good work.  It demands that we come together to share more broadly the good work that Catholic schools continue to do–especially when their communities are struggling.

To that end, Catholic school leaders around the country have been working together to share stories about how effectively Catholic schools are supporting families and communities during this difficult time.  In order to educate the public about the good work we do, we must tell our stories. Students can speak to how they’ve been challenged and cared for during these difficult times.  Parents can testify to their gratitude that their students have been learning and part of a caring community.  Staff members can talk about their support and innovation to reach students.

Second, we must more clearly articulate the mission, vision, and purpose of Catholic education.  For too long, we’ve rested on our history to drive our future.  But to rebuild a thriving a Catholic school sector–particularly one that serves our nation’s most disadvantaged communities–we must lead with what we believe.  That is to say, while academic excellence is important, more important to our work is the fact that Catholic schools form disciples by finding God in all things.  Indeed, particularly during this global crisis, it’s important to look for God.  In doing so, our students, teachers, and leaders will find meaning and purpose during these twin uncertainties of the pandemic and the economic downturn. A renewal of faith, hope, and charity is needed in the world, and it will come through the children who have been formed in them.

Third, we’re providing five essential themes for Catholic school leaders.  This should shape your planning and communication during these uncertain times:

  1. Prayer: our schools are providing spiritual companionship to all members of our communities.  We’re giving them a foundation of faith.
  2. Partnership with Families: Parents are the primary educators and are choosing Catholic schools as the best option.  Our Catholic schools are responding to the needs of each family.
  3. Personalization: Catholic schools are small and nimble enough to customize the education for each student.  We are working with families to adjust to the changing economic circumstances.
  4. Perseverance: We are modeling to our students how to rely on their faith to persist and persevere through the obstacles that have emerged.
  5. Planning: We are purposefully planning for all contingencies to improve our instruction and strengthen our communities.

These themes should infuse your communication and planning for next year and re-orient your community to face these unprecedented challenges.  We have prepared an Executive Summary for distribution. The latest projection is that over 100 Catholic schools may close this spring.  So far, 41 have announced their closures due to the pandemic. (track the number here)  Let’s distribute these ideas and work to keep our schools open and serving our students.

Dr. Tim Uhl is the first guest author for the Partnership Post. He is the Superintendent for Montana Catholic Schools and hosts the weekly Catholic School Matters’ podcast and newsletter.