First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

Catholic Schools Making the Grade
Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan

This column comes from Rome, where I am participating in the Synod of Bishops on the family.

What comes up here so often is how important our Catholic schools are to keeping families strong and united. When children attend schools where the values of their homes are reinforced, schools which flow from the natural right of parents to choose the education they consider best for their kids, and schools which welcome and insist upon vigorous participation of parents in the life of the institution, family life is nurtured.

This is a good time for me to pay tribute to the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of New York. Usually I write about them in early September, as classes resume. You’ll pardon my tardiness this fall, since this year I was a bit preoccupied with the visit of the Holy Father!

I was hardly surprised that, when I asked Pope Francis what he wanted to see during his hours in New York, he responded, “I want to visit one of your Catholic schools which I hear so many people praise.”

As you now know, one of the highlights of his tumultuous stay was his wonderful stop at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem. Later on, in the back of the Fiat, he wanted me again to talk about our schools. The Holy Father was visibly moved by the dedication of priests, parents, principals, teachers, benefactors, and religious women and men who labor and sacrifice to make our schools the places of excellence they are. Dr. Timothy McNiff, our renowned superintendent of schools, has given me even more good news about our schools this autumn. (This issue contains a four-page pullout section on Catholic schools in the archdiocese.)

For one, the test scores for our children went up considerably last year. That “report card” is a blessing! These high scores only verify what we already know: that our schools deserve their sterling reputation for academic rigor. Dr. McNiff and his office were worried three years ago when some of our schools showed only mediocre scores in science and math, and devised a strategy to turn that around. It worked!

Two, the financial health of our schools is much stronger and more stable. Oh, they still cost a bundle, and our parishes and families still sacrifice heroically for them. But, especially with regionalization, the burden of support has now been shared, since all parishes now offer a subsidy to their common school. This has been a huge relief to families, parishes that formerly had to finance their school all alone, and the archdiocese, which was spending massive amounts annually, money we didn’t have, and which needed as well to be shared fairly with other equally valuable apostolates of the Church.

Three, for the first time in quite awhile, the enrollment numbers did not drop dramatically! Admittedly, the number of children in our schools went down again from the previous year, but by a much smaller percentage than before. We’ll take any good news!

We must now work hard to solidify these three signs of progress, and in doing so, I also want to work on some other significant areas…

For one, while our test scores are usually higher than public schools—dramatically so in the city—there are areas of the archdiocese where the scores in public or charter schools are very close to our own.

Let me then ask: If parents are deciding where to send their children, and, if the test scores in the local public school are on par with those in the Catholic ones, why would the parents pay a lot of money to send their children to one of our schools, when they might get a similar academic education in the public school, with a lot more “bells and whistles,” which doesn’t charge tuition?

There’s only one good reason: for the education in faith, virtue, prayer, and character their kids receive in a Catholic school. You bet our parents send their children to a Catholic school for an excellent education of the mind—and we don’t let them down—but also the formation of heart and soul.

That’s why we have to emphasize the religious education of our students! We prepare our children not just for success in this life, but for salvation and eternity in the next! If we are not preparing our children to know and love Jesus, and to embrace Him living in His Church, then our schools are not worth it.

Two, we have to continue to make our schools more affordable. You have heard the good news of the $40 million gift to our schools by Christine and Stephen Schwartzman, the big boost toward the $125 million capital campaign for our inner-city Catholic schools. Alleluia!

But the families in our middle-class neighborhoods throughout the entire archdiocese need help as well! A family with three kids in our elementary or high schools can be paying over $15,000 a year in tuition! Many just can’t do it! What we do so laudably for our schools in poor areas we must now do for all of them!

Three, here’s the plain fact: The biggest problem we face in our wonderful Catholic schools is that most of our parents choose not to send their children there. You do the math: Only 28 percent of our Catholic children are enrolled in our schools! If we want to keep our schools alive and strong, we have to convince more of our parents to enroll their children in them!

Why don’t they? Some are unwilling to sacrifice the money to do so, preferring to spend it elsewhere. Others are more than willing to sacrifice, but still can’t afford the tuition. Still others feel the sacrifice is hardly worth it, and question the presence of a Catholic identity in our schools.

What to do? We continue to raise funds for scholarships to help all our families choose our schools; we fortify the Catholic mission and identity of our schools; and we emphasize marketing, something we have not been that good at. It’s time we all became salesmen for this treasure of Catholic schools that we have! The experts tell us that, if our enrollment went up only 10%, our schools would be full and our financial worries would be dramatically lessened!

You know what? Keeping our splendid Catholic schools excellent, affordable, and accessible will always be a huge challenge. Our schools will always require blood, sweat, and tears… and I’m glad they will! Because we never, then, can take them for granted! They demand grit, trust, sacrifice, and untiring work.

But, are they ever worth it! Thanks for doing it!


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