Weakening of Catholic identity contributes to school enrollment decline, cautions professor
By Marianne Medlin
Dr. John J. Convey
Dr. John J. Convey

.- In the wake of the Archdiocese of New York recently closing 27 of its schools, conversation on the sharp decline of Catholic school enrollment has once again been ignited. One education expert says a weakening of Catholic identity is a primary factor in the school closures.

Dr. John J. Convey, who holds the title of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., also explained that a lack of school-aged children and waning pastoral leadership have also significantly contributed to school closures. 

The Archdiocese of New York announced Jan. 11 that after careful consideration, it will close 27 of its Catholic schools due to steadily declining enrollment.

The move will save the archdiocese $10 million a year.

The New York archdiocese, which is home to 2.5 million parishioners, will continue to spend $13 million annually to sustain its remaining 189 Catholic schools.

The archdiocese released a statement on its website, saying that the closures of 26 elementary schools and one high school will affect 3,700 students. Thirteen of the schools to be shut down are in New York City and others are in counties north of the area.

With its recent closures, the archdiocese has added to an ominous and growing trend of declining student enrollment in Catholic schools across the U.S.

Enrollment in Catholic elementary schools has dropped 15 percent nationwide since 2001-02 school year, reported the National Catholic Educational Association. In 2006 and 2007 in the U.S., 212  Catholic schools were closed or consolidated.

In a Jan. 17 e-mail, Dr. Convey, who co-authored the 2009 book “Weathering the Storm: Moving Catholic Schools Forward,” weighed in, saying that numerous factors have contributed to enrollment decline.

He noted that dwindling demographics, what he called an “insufficient number of school-age children,” is a large underlying problem.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported last August that the steadily falling birth rate in the U.S. fell 2.7 percent in 2009, an all time low in the last 100 years.

Dr. Convey also said that “weak leadership” on the part of the principal or the pastor, including the “unwillingness of the pastor to support the school or to promote it to the parish” as another factor.

“This problem is exacerbated if diocesan leadership is not strong or is unwilling to act to rectify the leadership problem,” he added.

Perhaps most disconcerting, Dr. Convey cited a “weak Catholic identity” on the part of Catholic schools either based in actual fact or simply perceived as such by parents.

He said that many families today believe that a Catholic school is not strong enough in the “value-added” component that would make it different from a public or charter school.

The education expert added that families without sufficient income to afford tuition can be a problem which is “exacerbated if adequate tuition assistance is not available.”

“In some cases, money is an issue; families can't afford the tuition and insufficient tuition assistance is available to help them. In other cases, parents are unwilling to pay for a Catholic school if they perceive that the public schools, charter schools or other private schools in their area are adequate.”

Dr. Convey also noted that accusations of sex abuse by clergy have “had an impact on diocesan budgets from huge legal settlements.”

Lastly, he said parents often “don’t sufficiently value Catholic education” and would rather “have their children educated in the public school even though they could afford to send them to a Catholic school.”

Dr. Convey explained that in order to combat plummeting school enrollment, the “Church and each individual Catholic school needs to be more vocal about the importance of the schools and their effectiveness in both the academic and religious formation of the students.”

He added that public relations and marketing along with effective leadership at both the local and diocesan levels are “essential for renewing interest in Catholic schools.” 

“Locally,” he emphasized, “leadership rests in the principal, the pastor, the school board, and the faculty.  The attitude and support of the pastor is especially important in that he signals to the entire community about whether the school is an important mission of that parish and the Church.”

In an article for America Magazine on Sept. 13 last year, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York noted many of Dr. Convey's same concerns on the decline in Catholic school enrollment.

He underscored the documented benefits of a Catholic education for students, such as better test scores, deeper spirituals lives and greater community involvement. He then called it the “ecclesial duty” of all American Catholics to increase the number of students in Catholic schools today.

Archbishop Dolan said that to “re-grow” the Catholic school system, “today’s efforts need to be rooted in the long-term financial security that comes from institutional commitment through endowments, foundations and stable funding sources and also from every parish supporting a Catholic school, even if it is not 'their own.'”

“Strong Catholic schools strengthen all other programs of evangelization, service, catechesis and sanctification,” he wrote. “The entire church suffers when Catholic schools disappear.”

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