The following is an executive summary of the report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic education by its chairman, John (Jack) Quindlen.
Catholic schools make leaders. They educate the whole person in mind and spirit, and they play a key role in shaping Philadelphia life. The evidence is obvious: Many of our region’s finest scholars, public officials, business leaders, doctors, attorneys and educators today began as students in Catholic schools. So did a great many of the one-time poor who achieved their way to a better life: people who found their dignity and their God-given talent learning in Catholic classrooms. Yet in recent years, many of our schools have struggled to survive, placing more and more stress on the entire Catholic school system, while lacking a clear plan for recovery and future growth.
In December 2010, to secure Catholic schools in the decades ahead, Cardinal Justin Rigali established a Blue Ribbon Commission and tasked it with charting a future course for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The 16-member Commission includes educators, business leaders, pastors and other lay leaders. It had its first meeting in January 2011, and met monthly thereafter. Between scheduled meetings, various subgroups met in person or by phone dozens of times to follow through on matters discussed at the monthly meetings.
On September 8, 2011, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., succeeded Cardinal Rigali as Archbishop of Philadelphia. While the mandate of the Commission preceded his arrival by many months, and Archbishop Chaput is still learning the pastoral terrain of his new diocese, he has warmly supported our work, and we thank him for his encouragement.
The Commission reviewed current educational programs at all levels to develop a strategy to assure sustainable Catholic education and faith formation of our young people. In the course of our work, we met with and sought input from many experienced professionals and organizations including the Connelly Foundation, Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), the Association of Catholic Teachers, the Regional Vicars and members of the Archdiocese staffs. We also had the benefit of surveying parents, teachers and pastors. In addition,by virtue of their work assignments or pro bono activities, virtually all of the Commission members were well informed on the issues and challenges facing our schools, both elementary and secondary.
The report makes recommendations in the following areas:
Elementary Schools – Currently there are 156 elementary and/or regional schools. Approximately 40 to 45 of them cannot be sustained, burdened by serious annual operating deficits often in parishes with heavy accumulated debts. Most of those schools have small enrollments and do not offer the key elements of a 21st century curriculum. A detailed review of these challenged schools reveals that in K through Grade 8, 34 schools have enrollments fewer than 200 and of these, 14 have fewer than 150. Eleven other schools across the Archdiocese have more than 200 students but have demonstrated a pattern of decreasing enrollments and financial deficits and are therefore considered challenged. We urge that a partnering and regionalizing plan for these schools be implemented as soon as possible.
Secondary Schools – Currently 17 Archdiocesan secondary schools serve approximately 16,000 students. Several of the high schools are currently experi- encing enrollment declines and resultant financial challenges. The Archdiocesan Board of Education has approved a right-sizing plan for the secondary schools, which includes closing four high schools. The Commission supports that plan.
Governance – While it is important to maintain the unique, local characteristics of the individual schools, whether they are parish, regional or secondary, the Com- mission strongly recommends a revised governance model to bring more uniform management to strategic issues such as enrollment, tuition and economic viability. The new governance model consists of an Executive Board of Education chaired by the Auxiliary Bishop responsible for overseeing Catholic Education, and four additional boards focusing on Elementary Schools, Secondary Schools, Religious Education and Special Education.
Catholic Identity – Catholic Identity is the very reason for the existence of Catholic schools and all faith formation programs in the Church. It is the defining characteristic that sets Catholic education apart from public and private schools, as well as all other religious-based institutions. It is the force behind our long-held tradition of excellence, which provides us a competitive edge in the marketplace. The Commission offers several recommendations to strengthen and improve the Catholic Identity in our Catholic schools and in our Parish Religious Education Programs.
Academic Excellence – Catholic schools in the Archdiocese should be centers of Academic Excellence for teachers and students in the 21st century. The basis for this commitment is found in the “Statements of Beliefs” published in the 2010-2014 Strategic Plan for the Office of Catholic Education. The Commission supports the goals of the Office of Catholic Education Strategic Plan and offers several recommendations to further those goals.
Religious Education – The increasing number of children receiving catechesis outside of a Catholic school setting underscores the need for strong, sustain- able Parish Religious Education Programs. The Commission makes a number of recommendations intended to support the work of those who exercise leadership: pastors in particular, parents who are the primary educators of their children in the faith, catechists who staff programs, and Catholic school administrators who provide collaboration with the students in the Catholic schools especially in the sacramental programs.
Special Education – The Archdiocese operates four schools for Special Education that serve children who range in age from infancy to twenty-one years who are diagnosed with varying levels of disabilities from moderately and severely cognitively impaired to legally blind or deaf. These schools provide children with special needs an education that will assist them in their spiritual, academic, emotional and psychological growth. In this section, the Commission offers recommendations dealing primarily with governance and financing.
Foundation for Education – Probably the biggest single issue facing Catholic parents today as they decide on where to send their children to school is the cost of tuition. The Archdiocese has been very fortunate to have significant financial help over the years from private sources such as the Connelly Foundation, BLOCS and the McCloskey Foundation. There is every reason to expect that their help will continue, but we believe the Archdiocese can take a significant step forward by establishing a new foundation dedicated exclusively to raising money to support its schools. While the short-term impact of such a foundation will likely be modest, we believe the long-term potential is substantial.
Advocacy for Government Support – In recent years, a growing movement has developed in Pennsylvania to seek support for school choice by way of a voucher system. The Commission sees this as a matter of social justice for the rights of parents and the benefit of children. It strongly supports all efforts to extend the assistance of school choice to all students seeking a quality education, whether they freely choose public, charter, private or religiously affiliated schools. Commission members believe that Catholic schools will always compete effectively – and in fact excel – in any environment where education resources are equally available to all quality providers.
We recognize that no plan or report is perfect, and this one is submitted to Archbishop Chaput with the confidence that he will review, consider, apply and, if necessary, adjust its recommendations according to his pastoral prudence and the needs of our people. Commission members are unanimous in their belief that Catholic schools have enduring value; that they glorify God and ennoble their students by their excellence; and that they have a great future – if they are wisely led. Commission members are equally unanimous that current financial losses cannot be justified or sustained; that our Catholic school system must be right- sized and, in a sense, re-imagined; and that strategic decisions about our Catholic schools have already been delayed too long at great cost. Now these decisions are urgent. They cannot in good conscience or sound stewardship be delayed. We thank Cardinal Rigali and Archbishop Chaput for the privilege of having served our Church with this yearlong effort. We understand the difficulty that real change always involves. However, we believe that this report, if pursued with energy and creative new leadership, will bear fruit in a renewal of Philadelphia’s great tradition of Catholic education.
John J. Quindlen
Dec. 27, 2011