“Back to School!” You see the signs everywhere reminding us that it’s that time again. Although they may protest a bit, kids are usually eager to see their friends again after a few months’ absence and get back into their familiar routines. Parents are probably less inclined to “protest.” In so many ways, our society, including businesses, revolves around the notion of “the school year,” with September as the month for gearing up and moving forward.
In the Diocese of Trenton, we distribute posters and ads with the mantra “Catholic Schools Have it All.” True enough. That’s what we believe. In addition to the “three Rs” of education everywhere, a Catholic education provides a deeper grounding in faith that builds on the foundation of faith set in the Catholic family home. Like anything worthwhile, the effort to create a faith environment in the Catholic school takes its cue from the way faith is lived and practiced at home. Practiced … that’s the key word. For our Catholic faith to take root, it needs fertile soil. The plants are there and ready – aka, our kids – but the ground must be ready to receive them, too, as their faith is nurtured by good catechesis in the sunlight of the Gospel!
Catholic schools do a great job in educating the entire young person entrusted to their care. The studies and statistics clearly establish that as fact. The question I raise as Bishop, along with those who administer and teach in our Catholic schools is this: Why don’t more parents take advantage of the proven positive results of a Catholic education?
At a time when education, in general, is promoted and prized throughout American society, our Catholic schools are steadily declining in enrollments – that’s a sad fact. As a lifelong Catholic educator who now, as Bishop, is responsible for our system of Catholic education throughout the Diocese of Trenton, I am deeply concerned about the future of Catholic schools here. People say they want Catholic schools but the declining numbers in our schools just don’t support that.
The issue is not one of quality. Our Catholic schools provide an excellent, well-rounded education as is evidenced by the number of “Blue Ribbon of Excellence Awards” our Catholic schools in the Diocese regularly receive from the US Department of Education. Quality is not the problem. The problem is one of quantity – numbers. With declining enrollments each year come declining revenues. There’s no other way to say it. Catholic education is wonderful but it’s not free. With fewer kids “in the seats” and the annually escalating costs involved in educating them always before us, the challenge becomes one of sustainability. Many of our Catholic schools just can’t pay their bills and their continued operations are at risk. Despite the good they do, they have become insurmountable financial burdens on parishes already “squeezing every nickel” to meet their other needs and responsibilities. The Diocese has made valiant efforts to help out – most often without any fanfare or notice or acknowledgment– but it does not have infinite, unlimited resources. It, too, has other needs and responsibilities to fulfill in the Church. For me and I am sure for many, when a decision is made to close any Catholic school, it is agonizing. Unfortunately, some few such decisions are on the horizon.
But the news is not all bad. The Catholic schools in the Diocese that are able to function effectively –even with some downturn in numbers – are doing an outstanding job for our kids and their parents. The task before us all – whether we have school age kids or not – is to support and promote our parish and diocesan Catholic schools, to “spread the good news” far and wide, to invite our relatives, neighbors and friends to consider Catholic schools for their children and to witness the real value of Catholic education from which so many of us have benefitted in our lives, our families and our careers.
“Back to School” time has come again. And, even though they may be becoming fewer in number, remember “Catholic Schools Have It All” … still.