OAKLAND, Calif. (CNS) — The face of Catholic education in the Diocese of Oakland will change with a plan that will close five schools and move seven schools into a separate network charged with bolstering the educational and faith formation experience by sharing teaching specialists and administrative services.
The five schools that will close at the end of the 2016-17 school year are: Sts. Jarlath, Lawrence O’Toole and Martin de Porres, all in Oakland; Our Lady of the Rosary School in Union City; and St. Jerome School in El Cerrito.
Parents at the five schools that are closing were notified by letter sent home with students Jan. 19. The closure affects approximately 642 students and 90 employees. There is ample room for the students at the seven network schools, as well as nearby Catholic schools, the diocese said.
The seven schools that will join the new network in fall 2018 are Sts. Anthony and Elizabeth in Oakland; Queen of All Saints School in Concord; St. Catherine of Siena School in Martinez; St. Cornelius School in Richmond; St. Paul School in San Pablo; and St. Peter Martyr School in Pittsburg.
The network will have its own board, which the bishop will appoint. It will operate as a financially independent entity.
Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber said the closures and creation of the network come at the end of a “major diocesan consultation process that’s been going on for two years,” studying finances, parishes, schools and charitable works. The committee, he said, included a mixed group of people, not just those involved in schools. “I think it’s been very healthy,” he said.
But there is sadness in closing schools. “I realize the pain closing a school causes,” Bishop Barber said.
He recalled three visits to St. Lawrence O’Toole Parish over the past year. “They always have a Catholic school student, in his uniform, standing at my parking place, holding a sign, ‘Welcome Bishop Barber’ and waving,” he said. “When I look at that child, and I realize I’m going to have to tell him, ‘Your school is going to close,’ it’s not easy.
“It’s not just a bureaucratic decision. But we are faced with certain realities,” he said. “I feel as a bishop, I’m more like a referee on a field. I’m the reality check for the diocese.”
The schools that are closing have experienced “consistent drops in enrollment,” Bishop Barber said.
“We’re offering a good product, but our families don’t want to take advantage of it, or can’t, either because they can’t pay tuition, which is reasonable by private school standards, or Catholic education for their kids is not something they consider important,” he continued.
“The rising rents and mortgage costs of living in the East Bay take up so much of their earned income, that there’s little left over food and living, let alone a ‘luxury’ item like Catholic education,” he said.
The schools that are closing have received subsidies from the diocese to keep their doors open, the bishop said. Since 2009, those subsidies have totaled $5,332,941. The estimated subsidy for the 2016-17 school year is $1.8 million.
The total number of employees, faculty, staff and administration, in the closing schools is 90. Each year there’s an average of 40-90 positions that open up.
The Oakland Diocese looked to other dioceses that have created networks for inner-city schools, including New York City and Camden, New Jersey.
One of the main benefits of the network the bishop said he sees is funding. “Right now, they’re all chasing the same benefactors,” he said. “Whether you’re in Richmond or East Oakland or Union City or West Oakland, you’re chasing the same corporations. I want to have one development director to get money that will be shared with all the schools.
“They found in other dioceses, when they formed the separate network, donations from corporations went up,” he said.
What the diocese can’t do, he said, is continue to keep the doors open at schools with empty desks.
“I think there’s a mistaken assumption that it’s the duty of the Catholic Church to provide a nearly free education for anyone who wants to come to our school,” Bishop Barber said. “I think that is false.”
“It’s the job of the state to provide a good quality education to all its citizens. It’s the job of the church to hand on the Catholic faith to the children of the families that attend our parishes. So Catholic schools are primarily but not exclusively for Catholic children. It’s not for the whole world. We just can’t do it,” he said.
“We welcome into our schools students and families who do not belong to our faith, do not attend or support our churches. But it can’t be an education exclusively for that group,” he added.
The network schools, with increased funding from foundations and corporations, will continue the mission of Catholic education.
“The vision is,” Bishop Barber said, “these schools will have a strong Catholic identity; their academic standards will be way above normal, which Catholic schools have always had; that the teachers will be inspiring models of faith; that people will want to go there not just to get into Harvard but to get into heaven; that they’ll come to know how much Jesus loves them and have a friendship with him; learn to think more than about themselves through corporal and spiritual works of mercy; and that they’ll enjoy their Catholic faith, and if they’re not Catholic, they’d be welcome to join the school — we’re noticing more Muslims enrolling — but they would come to know the Catholic Church is their friend and loves them, too.”
Jurich is on the staff of The Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of Oakland.