Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Catholic Schools Past - and Future?

My (Grades 1-8) elementary School (photo), which first opened its doors on September 10, 1907 and from which I graduated 58 years ago today, closed its doors for the last time this month. In its last years, it was housed in the more modern facilities of the former parish high school, from which I also graduated, 54 years ago today, and which closed in 1991. (The original parish high school had opened in 1927, ten years after the elementary school, and moved into its new building in 1958. As a 10-year old, I attended its Dedication by Cardinal Spellman on November 9, 1958.)

The late Chicago Catholic sociologist, Father Andrew Greeley devoted a lot of his scholarly energy to making the case for Catholic schools. He famously worried whether a sufficient number of contemporary Church leaders were sufficiently appreciative of the long-term value of Catholic schools and sufficiently committed to keeping them open. Of course, even when Church leaders are very committed to Catholic schools, the obstacles to keeping them viable may sometimes seem overwhelming, and there may genuinely seem to be no other options left but to close. If, however, it is true, as is increasingly claimed, that the median age for leaving the Church is now around 13, the case of making a serious commitment to Catholic education, especially  at the elementary level, certainly seems unassailable.

Of course, back when I graduated elementary school, there were 1400 students in the parish school. (We were the "baby boom" generation, after all!) Tuition was $1. per month per family. Obviously our education cost more than that. Presumably it was heavily subsidized by the parish community, which was "all in" when it came to support for Catholic education. The cost of our education was also subsidized by the religious communities who taught in the schools, whose members were obviously not being paid for their services at what would be considered fair compensation rates by today's standards. And, while we got a good education, it was no-frills. We typically had 55+ students in a class, went home for lunch, had little or no science, etc.

None of that could be replicated today. Catholic schools today must meet all sorts of expensive educational standards and social and parental expectations and must pay teachers (who are now primarily lay people) a just wage. Such considerations may make maintaining a broadly accessible Catholic school system seem increasingly problematic today. 

Worst of all, it is far from obvious that the nationwide Catholic community is "all in" when it comes to support for Catholic education the way it was back then. Catholic schools may be the American Catholic Church's greatest success story for the sheer number of poor and immigrant, working-class students it educated and made into a successful and stable middle class. It is sadly less clear how successful it was in passing on all the community-wide commitment that motivated the original effort behind Catholic education in this country. 

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