Plan Seeks to Fill Catholic Schools in St. Louis Area

February 3, 2012 by  
Filed under O'Meara Ferguson News

STLtoday.com – By Elisa Crouch – February 3, 2012

MANCHESTER • Archbishop Robert Carlson announced a plan Thursday that seeks to fill about 1,800 vacant seats in the region’s Catholic schools by channeling more revenue toward scholarships and pushing for state tax credits for tuition-paying parents.

Carlson’s “Alive in Christ” initiative also seeks to magnify the Catholic identity of the schools by stepping up the celebration of Mass, observing regular prayer and ensuring educators are steeped in the catechism and traditions of the faith.

“Catholic identity is not something we can afford to take for granted,” Carlson told a packed auditorium at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School. “It is absolutely essential for handing on the faith to the young church in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.”

The plan, two years in the making, should serve as a blueprint, Carlson said, for improving education at the 147 Catholic schools in the 11-county archdiocese.

Filling the 1,800 empty seats should be a priority for every parish, Carlson said. vHe encouraged parishes to collaborate toward this effort, rather than compete.

“Schools that are full have a much better chance of being vibrant, of operating in the black, than schools that are underutilized,” he said.

Carlson avoided more contentious issues such as closing and consolidating schools and significantly redistributing funds from wealthier suburban parishes to struggling ones in the urban core. Both approaches have typified similar initiatives in other Catholic systems.

Last month in Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput announced that 45 elementary schools and four high schools must close at the end of this school year.

And in New York, Archbishop Timothy Dolan has also closed and consolidated schools and proposed restructuring the school system.

While Carlson did not rule out the need for school closures in years to come — hoping they would be “few and far between” — his focus was primarily on growth and taking action.

“At this moment, we’ve bought ourselves some time,” he said afterward.

He announced a more modest approach aimed at building up tuition assistance. He directed parishes to contribute 2 percent of external revenue toward scholarships, with the goal of assisting families with $5 million a year in additional support. The assessment would be phased in starting with 1 percent contributions this year, and 2 percent by 2013.

In a few years, there would be a new endowment fund created to generate $5 million to $10 million in scholarship assistance for the long term. The fund would be separate from the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, which provides scholarships to 2,400 children attending Catholic schools in the urban core.

“Most of our kids are kids in poverty in the city,” said Kevin Short, foundation president. The endowment fund and assistance Carlson announced Thursday would help families struggling to afford a Catholic education in all 11 counties of the archdiocese.

Carlson also said there must be collaboration among Catholic organizations, such as the Missouri Catholic Conference, to pressure lawmakers to pass laws allowing for tuition tax credits. He also advocated the reversal of the Blaine Amendment that bars state money from “directly or indirectly” benefiting any religion or church-controlled school.

“I’m aware this will not be easy,” Carlson told the crowd. “But it’s a matter of justice. … In this area we must make major progress. The time has come after years of frustration.”

Afterward, Carlson called the Blaine Amendment “anti-Catholic.” Pushing for state tax credits may be the more realistic approach, he said.

And if that effort fails, “We’ll do without it,” Carlson said. “That just makes it easier.”

Overall, Catholic school enrollment has dropped by 14,000 in the last 10 years to about 42,500 students, according to the archdiocese. However, the school system continues to be the seventh-largest Catholic school system in the country.

For parents, the largest hurdle to overcome is finances, said Patricia Spellman, president of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Teachers Association, which represents about 190 teachers at six high schools.

“We have a lot of kids in need,” she said. “We have a lot of parents who’d always been able to pay tuition and now they’ve lost hours or they’ve lost jobs. Anything the church can do to help and assist children who want a Catholic education to get it would help.”

When Carlson arrived in St. Louis in 2009, he said improving Catholic education was his top priority.

He began a series of listening sessions that involved more than 3,000 people, including pastors, school administrators, parents and civic leaders. He held meetings with national education and fundraising experts and conducted an online survey. And then four committees led by four priests developed strategies to accomplish Carlson’s goals.

Carlson’s slower, more deliberate approach has drawn praise from those involved and others outside the archdiocese, who say the input will help the effort if some of the action steps don’t sit well with parishioners.

“It helps people to accept an unpopular decision if they know that someone really looked at and considered all options,” said Brian Gray, spokesman for the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington.

Carlson said the real work must begin.

“This process is just starting,” he said. “As we work through these then we’ll move onto others. Unfortunately. You can’t do everything right away.”

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