LORD, TO WHOM SHALL WE GO?

Improved Enrollment Key to Keeping Schools Open

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Shortly after the New Year, I took a personal weekend and flew to Ireland.  While I always cherish a visit to the Emerald Isle, this was not really a “vacation” and I certainly wasn’t there for the weather! No, what caused me to cross the Atlantic was something much more meaningful: the opportunity to visit, however briefly, with Sister Bosco and several of the other Mercy Sisters who taught me at Holy Infant parish school in my hometown of Ballwin, Missouri. It was they who, along with my Mom, Dad, and grandparents, nurtured my faith, inspired my vocation, gave me a first-rate education…and instilled in me a profound appreciation and love for Catholic schools.

Last week’s announcement that seven elementary schools here in the archdiocese would close at the end of the academic year saddened me greatly! No priest, no bishop, especially this one, wants to see a Catholic school close. I’d rather open new ones! They remain an important part of our Catholic community, whose value reaches far beyond the academic excellence they are rightly known for, as they help to form young men and women morally and spiritually as well. 

Several people tried to console me and point out a few positives after the announcements were made. It’s been several years, some said, since the archdiocese had to close any of its schools. For six of the schools, others observed, there are Catholic schools very close, which are ready, eager, and anxious to welcome the students, and the outreach to parents and students has already begun. One of the thoughtful principals of the neighboring school, I’m told visited the one to close, and told the kids, “We’re sad this building is closing, but you still have a Catholic school next door.” A few reminded me that, disappointing though it is, the decision to close these schools involved extensive consultation and involvement of the regional boards that now oversee the regional schools throughout the archdiocese, proof that the Pathways to Excellence strategic plan has been successful. The people, parishes, benefactors, and the archdiocese can hold their heads high, some mentioned, as together they subsidized Catholic schools by more than $43 million in 2018 alone. 

All of this is true, but it provides little consolation to the students, parents, faculty, and administrators whose schools will close in June. My heart goes out to them. 

The sad reality is that these closures could all have been avoided if our Catholic school enrollment would increase! Believe me, I do understand that for many, if not most, of our school parents, it is a sacrifice to choose a Catholic school education for their children. That is why we have continued to intensify and expand our scholarship opportunities (last year we distributed more than $23 million in scholarships), to help ease the financial burden on our parents, and why we labor so diligently for justice for Catholic school parents by way of government support for school choice—be it vouchers, education tax credits, or some other means. It was heartening to hear President Trump in his State of the Union last week call on Congress to pass legislation for school choice in order to help support working parents, and I remain grateful to Governor Cuomo (with whom I’ve sure had grave disagreements as well) for his own past efforts to pass similar legislation in New York State, even if the effort ultimately proved unsuccessful in his own party and the legislature. (I do know that, in the coming days and weeks, I’ll hear from numerous politicians, asking why the archdiocese is closing a school in their district. When I ask, “what have you done to support Catholic schools?” I’ll be met with little more than a blank stare.)

There are many who will continue to work and fight for Catholic schools, including the women and men who make up our regional boards, the hardworking, dedicated administrators and teachers who devote their lives to educating our children, our priests and religious who help provide religious instruction and sacramental preparation, our benefactors, Catholic and not, and, most importantly the parents who continue to entrust their children to our Catholic schools. 

Still, in order to ensure the continued stability and vigor of our Catholic schools, more parents must choose a Catholic school education for their children! It is my hope that parents with kids in our schools might encourage their friends and neighbors to make a visit to their school, and see for themselves everything our schools have to offer. Perhaps new grandparents can encourage their children to consider Catholic schools for the next generation. We can all let our political leaders know that school choice is a matter of justice, and an important issue we need them to support if they wish to continue getting our vote. 

So, those of you hurt by this painful decision can write me to blame the archdiocese; or, you can write, call, or chat with Catholic parents who do not send their kids to our schools, encouraging them to do so; and you can buttonhole your state senator and assembly member and ask them to help you promote justice in parent choice. 

Way back in the second grade, Sister Bosco taught me a simple prayer that I still say every morning: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in You.” And so, I place the future of Catholic schools in the hands of the greatest teacher of them all, Jesus, because everything ultimately depends on Him. But I will continue to work for our schools as if everything depended on me. Won’t you join me? I don’t want to close any more! I don’t want to see our beautiful kids crying as their school closes.

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