I am not Catholic and I have never worked in a Catholic school. I’d always known there are urban Catholic schools with a mission very similar to Bellwether’s, but the schools themselves were somewhat of a black box to me. I haven’t been for or against Catholic schools — just indifferent (or agnostic?). Knowing that Catholic schools are by far the largest group of private schools in the world, this felt like a miss.
However, I’ve been on a sort of Catholic school pilgrimage over the past two years. I’ve built a close relationship with Bellwether client Partnership Schools (PNYC), a nonprofit organization (somewhat akin to a CMO) that manages seven New York City Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. I’ve also worked with EdChoice and Brilla Public Charter Schools, and collaborated with colleagues who’ve written a whole lot about Catholic schools.
Photo by Paul Morse
As I learned more, a few things immediately surprised me about Catholic schools in general and PNYC’s schools in particular:
- Many (sometimes most) kids who attend PNYC schools aren’t actually Catholic! The primary goal of urban Catholic schools isn’t to create little Catholics — it’s to serve those in need. As one PNYC team member put it (echoing what others have said): “We teach our kids because we are Catholic, not because they are.”
- While connected to a massive international church (and sometimes an operator like PNYC), Catholic schools are strongly committed to local control because of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions be made by the smallest, lowest, or least-centralized competent authority.
- While PNYC schools are tuition-based, many of their students receive scholarships that significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.
- Few PNYC teachers are nuns (or have any formal connection to the church). Most teach for reasons similar to other teachers — a belief in the transformative power of education, a desire to serve, and a love of children. The key addition in the case of PNYC is the faith-based motivation that inspires many to choose Catholic schools over their charter or district-run peers.
- PNYC’s teachers are unionized. While this is rare in the private school sector, there are actually a few different Catholic educator associations operating nationwide.
Though the last half-century has not been kind to Catholic schools, together, educators, school leaders, community leaders, families, and pastors are working to breathe new life into struggling Catholic schools. As I’ve written previously, these efforts may be the beginning of a renaissance in Catholic education.
In a new guidebook just released last week, Andy Smarick and I chronicle many of these exciting new ideas and innovations. Here’s a sneak peak of some of the promising work that’s happening across the country:
- To help more families access high-quality school options, including Catholic schools, organizations like Families Empowered in Houston use phone calls, emails, social media, and choice fairs to communicate with families on lengthy charter school waitlists about their school options.
- New models of schools, including private school management organizations like Notre Dame ACE Academies, Jubilee Schools, Catholic Partnership Schools, Cristo Rey, Independence Mission Schools, Partnership Schools, San Jose Drexel Initiative, and Faith in the Future, are helping catalyze enrollment in Catholic schools and creating a model for long-term sustainability.
- Organizations like Seton Education Partners have helped Catholic schools implement blended learning models, leading to reduced per-pupil expenditures and increased academic performance.
- Talent pipeline organizations like the Accelerate Institute, the Alliance for Catholic Education’s Teaching Fellows, the NYC Leadership Academy, and the Lynch Leadership Academy are working to recruit and train smart, talented individuals to teach in and lead Catholic schools.
- Organizations like the American Federation for Children and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice are working to expand the reach of private school choice programs so more students have access to their local Catholic schools.
- New organizations like The Drexel Fund are seeking to stimulate investment in Catholic schools by creating new high-quality seats and expanding high-quality networks. Others, like the Philadelphia School Partnership, are helping fund city-based, “sector-agnostic” investments in district, charter, and Catholic schools.
In talking to the leaders of these organizations, their hope and optimism about the future of Catholic education is palpable. And the future does look bright: Combining the time-tested Catholic school model with today’s ideas and innovations means that thousands more of our nation’s children will have the opportunity to access a high-quality, Catholic faith-based education.