He is neither old, nor a priest, nor particularly attached to time-honored traditions. At 35, John Eriksen, one of the nation’s youngest Catholic school superintendents, offers a ruthless assessment of parochial education. “The biggest threat that urban Catholic schools face is nostalgia,” he says both of districts nationwide and his own diocese of Paterson, N.J. A Notre Dame and Harvard graduate fluent in Spanish and Arabic, Eriksen is part of the next generation of Catholic leaders in search of new ways to halt decades of student attrition. “We’ve been running these schools in a way that might have worked 30 or 40 years ago, but doesn’t work now.”
Of that, there is no doubt. Nearly 1 in 5 Catholic schools in the U.S. have closed their doors this decade. To non-Catholics, this may not appear to be something worth worrying about. But parochial schools are one of the largest alternatives to the American public education system, and their steady decline inordinately affects low-income, urban minorities who would otherwise be left to the mercy of public schools that have proven incapable of educating them.
Many Catholic schools, however, are following in the steps of their public brethren and trying to survive by changing the way do business. Mandating that students work to pay off tuition, forging partnerships with philanthropists and foundations, converting to charter schools, and taking control away from pastors and putting it in the hands of lay experts these are just some of the ways in which dioceses are hoping to stem the school closure tide, which has reached worrisome proportions in America’s urban areas, where close to half of all parochial schools are located.
“We have no choice,” says Rev. Timothy Scully, CS, founder of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, a sort of Catholic version of Teach for America, which trains college grads to work in underserved parochial schools. “We either re-invent ourselves or I don’t see how we don’t ultimately disappear from America’s inner cities. The model upon which we were founded was so different, both from a cost and supply side.”
Enrollment in Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s when more than five million students attended nearly 13,500 parochial schools. Since then, both enrollment and the number of schools have dropped by more than half. Why For starters, the number of priests, nuns, and brothers able to teach for free has plummeted. In 1950, 90% of the teachers in Catholic schools came from religious orders, in 1967 it was 58%; today, it is 4%. This shift means schools have had to raise tuition in order to pay more lay teachers. Meanwhile, increasingly middle-class Irish and Italian families started moving to the suburbs, leaving urban Catholic schools to cater to a majority of lower-income blacks and Hispanics. Less money coming into the Church has led to even higher tuitions, fewer students who can afford to attend them and the potential for even more closures.
None of this is occurring in a vacuum, says Samuel Casey Carter, senior fellow at the nonprofit Center for Education Reform. “For more than 30 years, the Catholic Church has been supporting the public school system, educating children that many said were uneducable,” Carter says. “When these schools are closing at [a rate of] 100 to 200 a year, no matter how small they are, that ends up putting a massive burden on an already burdened public school infrastructure.” As he sees it, urban Catholic-school closures dump students back into a system that is ill-prepared to educate them, a system that in many large American cities awards diplomas to only half its high school students.
Some dioceses are to use education reformers’ favorite action verb innovating. Last year, in a controversial and mostly untested move, seven Catholic schools in Washington converted to charter schools. In Miami, eight schools have followed the same route. Over in Wichita, which still has a strong Catholic community, parishioners are encouraged to give a certain percentage of their salary to the diocese, which allows for tuition-free schooling for Catholics and lower tuition costs for non-Catholics. As a result, the diocese has not closed any schools in the past decade.
In Memphis, the diocese appealed to local donors and philanthropists to the tune of tens of millions of dollars over the last decade, which allowed for the re-opening of eight schools that had previously been shuttered. Yet such appeals to the wealthy have been blunted by the economic downturn, which has shined a light on the problem with depending on the kindness of others. “What’s keeping a lot of schools in the inner city going is philanthropy from other people,” says Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Education Association. “But it’s difficult because if you have to continuously raise millions of dollars every year, the sustainability of your school is always in jeopardy.”
So if money isn’t reliable, maybe it’s the system that needs to be overhauled, which brings us back to young John Eriksen’s original point. Leaders have to divorce themselves from the Church’s old practices. “One of the big dirty phrases in Catholic education is, “It’s a business,” says Eriksen, who spent several years as a consultant for Catholic schools before becoming superintendent. “But at the end of the day, we are private education providers. We charge tuition and offer a service in return, and a school run effectively is able to educate more people.”
His diocese, which covers 40 schools in three counties that run the gamut from wealthy to downright impoverished, recently centralized all operations under three professionals experienced in doing all the things required to run a healthy school district: marketing, financial management, and fund-raising. Whereby in previous years, schools would be run by one priest who was ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the school, boards composed of lay professionals are very slowly becoming a necessity.
In some ways, the Catholic school problem mirrors that of charter schools, a sector that is essentially competing for many of the same urban students. And Catholic schools have their own charter-like success stories, the most notable being Cristo Rey, a network of 24 schools focused on “breaking the sin of poverty.” These schools have a unique program that requires students to work one day a week with a corporate sponsor in order to subsidize their tuition, which is kept as low as possible as a result of the labor.
Cristo Rey is an island of success in the Catholic ocean. But, much like those in the charter school community, there is an awareness that there needs to be a system wide overhaul, lest another thousand-plus schools close over the next decade. “Just because you’re devoted to serving others isn’t a reason why you can’t be operationally excellent,” says Eriksen. “That’s not really a culture that has permeated the Catholic Church for the last few decades.”
After all, Eriksen says, “a much more effective mantra than, ‘We’re poor, give us money,’ is ‘We serve the poor, invest in us and we’ll provide a good return on your investment.’
Read a 1969 article from TIME’s archives about the Catholic school system in crisis.