A chance for rebirth

Our view: Closing 13 Catholic schools is traumatic, but the archdiocese is pairing the move with changes that should make the system stronger for years to come

March 04, 2010

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien saw the steady decline of enrollment in Baltimore's Catholic schools as offering an unpleasant choice. He could let the slow hemorrhage continue, with a few schools closing every year until, in what he figured would be a dozen years or so, there was nothing left. Or he could take a large but painful step to close several schools at once to realign the system's facilities with its enrollment and offer the chance of a fresh start. To his credit, he chose the latter.

Much of the discussion in the coming days will center on which schools are closing, and on the immediate disruption the plan to shutter nine Baltimore City and four Baltimore County schools will cause to thousands of parents and children. But the plan Archbishop O'Brien plans to release to the public today reflects months of thought about how to remake the Baltimore-area Catholic schools into a stable, even growing, component of the region's educational options. There is no guarantee it will succeed, but it certainly gives the schools a good chance.

Baltimore's network of Catholic schools grew along with the white, ethnic working-class populations that filled the city's rowhomes for decades, but as subsequent generations dispersed into the suburbs enrollments fell, and the character of the schools changed - to the point that 85 percent of students in Baltimore Catholic schools are now non-Catholic. Particularly in the city, Catholic schools have been seen by many parents as a relatively low-cost way to escape failing public schools. But the turnaround in Baltimore's public schools has changed that calculation. The church's plan addresses those dynamics and ensures the system will remain competitive with the best offerings of the region's public and private schools while emphasizing the one thing public schools can't offer: religious education.

In conducting focus groups, Archdiocese of Baltimore officials found that religious education and the atmosphere of faith in Catholic schools was a chief draw, even among non-Catholics. The archdiocese's plan bolsters that component of Catholic education by partnering with the brothers and sisters of the region's religious communities and by seeking to centralize many of the administrative tasks now performed by parish priests, allowing them to focus on Catholic formation in the schools.

That change also has the effect of putting more academic decisions in the hands of educators. Baltimore's Catholic schools have discovered the same thing that its public ones have: that effective principals are the key to successful schools, and the archdiocese is launching a pilot program to place the authority for hiring, supervising, mentoring and firing principals in the hands of the superintendent rather than parish priests. Several schools are already lined up to try the idea. The archdiocese is also working to partner with local Catholic universities to create a leadership institute for principals.

And just as public schools have expanded parents' choices through magnet and charter schools, so too are the Catholic schools expanding their offerings. The archdiocese plans a new dual-language school to better serve Hispanic students; four science, technology, engineering and math schools; an expansion of its program to help students with learning disabilities; a Montessori program for young children; and a pilot program for a model of education that was devised at Harvard to provide greater continuity and individualized instruction. Most of those programs are expected to be up and running by the fall.

The closure last summer of Towson Catholic High School shows how traumatic it can be to shutter one school, much less the 13 that are part of this plan. Towson Catholic was not an archdiocesan school, but archdiocese officials seem nonetheless to be determined to avoid a repeat of that debacle. The archdiocese has repeatedly told parents that a major restructuring of schools was coming and has sought input. And the archdiocese is carefully managing the rollout of this plan to give parents plenty of time to find other options. The archdiocese is guaranteeing seats in Catholic schools for all those who have been displaced, is offering recommendations for which schools can accommodate the students from the closed institutions and has set up a system to contact parents by phone at least three times in the coming months to connect them with assistance.

Parents whose schools are slated for closure will still surely feel anger and uncertainty. But this plan should at least give hope that these closures signal not retreat but rebirth.

Readers respond
I can guarantee one thing: the archdiocese will be criticized for this plan, especially by Catholics who complain about a second collection every few Sundays and being asked to give more to support their schools. Well, unlike the U.S. government, the church cannot print money and cannot run up trillion dollar deficits. This is the real world, people, not the world where someone else - or some future generation - is responsible.

John

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