Major upswing could be in future for schools

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 20, 2012

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago could be on the verge of a major upswing, if all goes according to plan, said Dominican Sister M. Paul McCaughey, the superintendent of Catholic schools.

Catholic elementary schools in Chicago showed a small increase in enrollment — the first since 1965 — and a systemwide enrollment decrease of less than 1 percent. That’s a marked improvement from where the schools were in the mid-2000s, when annual enrollment declines often approached 5 percent.

Sister M. Paul expects that next year’s numbers can be just as good, or better, if all goes according to plan, thanks in part to the Fiscal Advancement Stabilization Team, or FAST program implemented last winter.

That program aimed to help schools that needed archdiocesan money to stay afloat, and others that seemed to be on the cusp, to look seriously at their programs and their finances and to work to figure out how best to make their case to families.

“I really think FAST will become FEAST, with the E for Eucharist and for enrollment,” said Sister M. Paul in an interview in her office.

Will be some pain

But the changes will not happen without some pain. Nativity BVM school on the South Side will close and reopen as an early childhood center, and St. Domitilla in Hillside, which tried to survive as an early childhood center and did not make it, will close, and St. Barbara in Brookfield was trying to keep its doors open as this issue of the Catholic New World went to press.

In addition, the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago have decided to close St. Scholastica High School and the San Miguel School, Gary Comer Campus —a middle school serving disadvantaged students in the Austin neighborhood — also is closing. Maria High School will not accept new students and will close following the next school year.

But other schools are finding success filling their seats by offering targeted scholarships or discounts to families and by emphasizing their Catholic identity and the academic excellence of their programs.

“We are academically excellent because we are Catholic,” Sister M. Paul said. “That is our justice.”

Updating programs

In schools that were reviewed as part of the FAST program, those that needed help in several areas — say, finances, building repairs and programming — the Office of Catholic Schools is helping them revamp their programs first, because that can be done quickly, and could attract more families to the schools, which would, in turn, help the finances.

The difficulty, Sister M. Paul said, is in making Catholic education affordable for the middle class. Affluent families can afford to pay for it, and scholarship and financial aid programs exist to help needy families. But families who are in the middle class don’t have enough to pay for Catholic schools, especially if they have several children, and often don’t qualify for the kind of help available to poor families.

“It’s always the middle class that gets squeezed,” she said. “The financial pressures on the middle class are extreme. What sustained the middle class in the past was the parishes, but now they can’t afford to do that anymore.”

Need tax credits?

Sister M. Paul said one possible strategy would be to create a corporate tax credit in Illinois that would allow corporations to take a tax credit for donating money to scholarship programs for private schools. Those scholarships could be distributed by a central authority. Making it possible for more students to choose parochial schools would save the state money in the long run, she said.

But the positive steps that have been taken so far are starting to pay off, she said.

“I look at this like an ocean liner that we’ve been pushing and pushing and pushing and it’s almost back to the course,” she said. “We’ve got to get the engine strength behind it now. Then it’s damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. That’s what the Catholic community’s been waiting for.”