Catholic Schools Innovate … and Thrive

Published April 1, 2002

Changing demographics in cities across the United States have brought major financial challenges to many parish-run Catholic schools, as incomes in the surrounding community have declined and school enrollments have become more dependent upon non-Catholics.

Rather than face extinction through a debilitating combination of decreasing enrollments and increasing deficits, many schools have found that adopting a board of trustees governance structure is the first step to putting their operations back on sound financial footing.

It’s not the only step. For example, changing who’s in charge of Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory School in St. Louis has bolstered the school’s fundraising efforts, but created new worries for the school’s teachers and staff.

By changing from a school run by the St. Louis Archdiocese to one that’s a nonprofit corporation run by a board of trustees, Cardinal Ritter has raised $26 million over a three-year period. This has enabled school officials to develop a plan for moving the school out of a depressed North St. Louis neighborhood and into a desirable downtown location that’s just a block away from Symphony Hall and a black repertory theater, and just two blocks from a public television station, according to Carmele Hall, the president and principal of the school.

“Staying there would only ensure our demise,” she said of the Walnut Park neighborhood where the school has been for 50 years and gone through a transition from being all-white to predominantly black. The school has problems recruiting students to come into the area, Hall explained.

After the school changed to nonprofit status, Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis helped the new board of trustees raise money by attending meetings with potential donors. This resulted in agreements with such firms as A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc., Commerce Bank NA, the Danforth Foundation, Emerson Electric Co., and Ralston Purina Co.

Hall hopes the new 19-acre campus, scheduled to open in June 2003, will enable the school to attract students from diverse backgrounds while increasing enrollment from the current level of 219 students to 400. The school’s successful fundraising drive means it will probably be able to maintain tuition near its current $3,700 level and not price out middle-income families, according to Hall.

Despite the Cardinal Ritter board’s fundraising success, the change from being run by the archdiocese to reporting to the board has caused concern for Hall and other faculty and staff. Hall, for example, who has served as principal for 14 years, was waiting to find out if she would continue to serve as principal or move to take over the job of president, which deals more with alumni and community relations and development.

“This is probably going to be as hard as anything we’ve done,” she said. “It does present some challenge. We don’t know how it will look.”

Precarious Outlook

In recent years, Catholic high schools with predominantly black enrollment have been far more likely to close than move to better neighborhoods. That precarious outlook has led some of them to consider fundamental changes.

For example, Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles has adopted a corporate internship model where a student works one day a week at a local business, which pays roughly 75 percent of the student’s tuition. (See “Cristo Rey School Puts Students to Work,” School Reform News, January 2002.)

Other Catholic schools are in danger of closing. Archdiocese of Los Angeles officials this year announced that Queen of Angels Academy, an all-girls school in Compton that would have celebrated its 40th anniversary next year, will close at the school year’s end. Two of Detroit’s four black Catholic high schools are in danger of closing, according to principals there. And Alabama’s two black Catholic high schools are also endangered, according to the heads of those schools. In Washington, DC, only one predominantly black Catholic high school remains after the archdiocese closed three schools there in 1989.

Changing Governance Structures

The traditional Catholic school arrangement is for the parish to run its own elementary school, which usually is located near the church. Under that governance structure, the church’s pastor has the final say over school decisions, including hiring and firing the principal and paying the bills. The school may have an advisory board but, as the name implies, its sole function is to give advice to the principal and pastor.

In some cases—as with eight center-city schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC—an archdiocese may take over the running of schools and relieve pastors of the tasks of balancing the books, collecting tuition, upgrading buildings, hiring principals, and fundraising.

An advantage to having a board of trustees run a school is that it gives the school the opportunity to ask influential business executives and civil leaders to serve in an important position—running a Catholic school—and give their time and resources to help the school meet its financial needs. Under a trustees-style governance structure, dioceses and parishes are no longer solely responsible for subsidizing schools whose work extends beyond their parishes.

At parish-run Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair, New Jersey, just 7 percent of the school’s 298 students come from Immaculate Conception Parish. Like Cardinal Ritter, Immaculate Conception has changed from an all-white school to one that’s predominantly black, attracting children from failing public schools in the East Oranges and Newark.

Immaculate Conception school officials have asked the Archdiocese of Newark to allow them to become a private school run by a board of trustees, according to Willard Taylor, the school’s admissions director. “Pastors can come and go,” he explained, noting the risk involved in having a pastor who was not “school-friendly.”

Different Priorities

Reflecting the school’s need to emphasize alumni relations and fundraising in securing its future, Immaculate Conception’s principal, Sr. Maureen Crowley SCD, will become the school’s president in July, according to Taylor. Reflecting similar priorities last year, the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, who run all-girls Xavier Prep High School in New Orleans, recreated their president’s job, said Sr. Eileen Sullivan SBS, the school’s president.

What hasn’t changed in Catholic high school education is that private high schools run by religious orders are remaining private, with the religious order running the school while relying on a board of trustees for fundraising and other help. In some cases, the religious orders—such as the Benedictines, Christian Brothers, and Jesuits—will administer the school, which is owned in effect by the local diocese.

Murray is a freelance writer in Rockville, Maryland. His email address is [email protected].