Tag Archives: Catholic schools

My Slow-Motion Catholic School Epiphany

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. 

P012506PM-0291 Youngsters from the Cathedral Church of St. John react as they watch the arrival of Marine One to the South Lawn of the White House with President George W. Bush aboard Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. While PNYC schools are tuition-based, many of their students receive scholarships that significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.  

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Can Catholic Schools Come Back From the Brink?

The forecast has been bleak for urban Catholic education over the last 50 years. Shifting demographics, changing societal conditions, and unsympathetic K-12 public policies have contributed to school closures, mostly in low-income inner-city neighborhoods. Enrollment has plunged to fewer than 2 million students from 5.6 million over the past five decades.

Can Catholic schools adapt and come back from the brink? Writing for Education Next, Bellwether’s Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson explore three innovations that are breathing new life into the sector and suggesting that a renaissance of Catholic K-12 education in America might be possible.

Check out their new article, “Innovation in Catholic Education: New approaches to instruction and governance may revitalize the sector.”

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Leaders of Religious Private School Management Organizations Have New Complexities to Navigate

Private school management organizations (PSMOs) can learn a lot from the challenges and successes of charter school management organizations (CMOs) over the last couple of decades. However, one element crucial to many private schools’ missions—their religious orientation—creates a new and different set of challenges for PSMOs to navigate as they grow and expand.

As described in our recent paper, the degree of separation from a religious institution is a key factor differentiating existing PSMOs. Some PSMOs, like Blyth-Templeton and Thales Academy, are nonsectarian and therefore function very similarly to CMOs, entirely separate from any religious organizations.

But the vast majority of PSMOs in our study—12 of the 14—are religiously affiliated. Eight of the 12 PSMOs operate Catholic schools. To be considered Catholic schools, the local Bishop must formally recognize them as such, and all Catholic schools are governed by Canon law. Most are directly run by either an individual parish (parochial schools) or by the local diocese (diocesan schools). Historically, pastors have had a great deal of responsibility for running schools, overseeing not only the religious education but also the hiring of the principal and teachers, the school facility, the budget, managing enrollment, and more. When a PSMO takes over the operation of a Catholic school, however, it means a redistribution of these responsibilities and a new relationship between the pastor, parish, church community, school staff, and PSMO leaders. (For a fuller explanation of the history and governance of Catholic schools, see this guidebook.)

The Catholic PSMOs in our study have approached this challenge in a number of ways. Some, like the San Jose Drexel Schools and the Jubilee Schools in Memphis, are what we call “church-operated” PSMOs. Much like “skunk works” operations within large firms where a small group of people pursues a new idea outside of routine organizational procedures, church-operated PSMOs are separate offices embedded within the hierarchy of their local diocese. Although the diocese remains responsible for the success or failure of the schools, the PSMOs’ offices have been given considerable flexibility around the operations of a subset of schools. For example, the Jubilee Schools have a longer school day and year-round school calendar, different from the other schools in the diocese.

Other Catholic PSMOs have embraced what we call a “church-affiliated” model. These networks are all separate 501(c)(3) organizations that, through a management agreement with the local diocese, assumed operational control of a subset of the diocese’s schools. The nuances of these agreements—and their origins—vary significantly from PSMO to PSMO, and are prime fodder for additional study. But even just the basics that we cover in our paper suggest interesting divergence. For example, the Archdiocese of New York’s 2010 Strategic Plan laid out a plan for moving toward a regionalized governance structure that included the creation of a set of six inner-city elementary schools to be managed by a local nonprofit organization, The Partnership for Inner-city Education (PNYC). Through an 11-year agreement with the Archdiocese, PNYC has broad authority over the budgets, finances, operations, and academic programming of the six schools. As part of its five-year agreement with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Faith in the Future (FIF) PSMO agreed to underwrite the deficits of the 17 high schools and four special education schools over which it gained operational control.

The Notre Dame ACE Academies (NDAA) has a considerably different model: Rather than assuming operational control of a set of schools in one particular geography, NDAA partners with local dioceses in multiple geographies to create a new, separate board to govern a subset of schools. NDAA provides a couple of board members and a school principal. Unlike the agreements forged by PNYC or FIF, under the NDAA model parishes continue to oversee and operate each school. The new board and principal allow NDAA to play a key role in school operations such as school culture, governance, finance, instruction, and family and community engagement.

Cristo Rey, on the other hand, has no such agreement with a diocese. Instead, its model is much closer to that of nonsectarian PSMOs or even CMOs. All of Cristo Rey’s schools are independent Catholic schools sponsored by religious orders rather than affiliated with a particular parish. Per Canon law, all of the network’s schools are formally recognized as Catholic by the local Bishop. But beyond that, there is no formal relationship between the schools and the diocese (although many schools do have close, voluntary relationships with the various orders that sponsor them).

The intricacies of Catholic PSMOs’ relationships with their local dioceses and the specifics of the various management agreements are important points for additional research. Not only is the field of PSMOs relatively new and burgeoning, but navigating relationships with religious institutions is something not paralleled in the public school sector. The Catholic PSMOs in this study have begun to pave new roads for future PSMOs. Their successes and challenges and ongoing navigation of a bureaucracy as complex and time-honored as the Catholic Church—all while respecting the history, faith, values, customs, and traditions of the Church and its local parishes, priests, and communities—must not be overlooked.

A Renaissance in Catholic Education

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:

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.

Bellwether on Catholic Schools and the Pope’s U.S. Visit

Pope Francis is in the United States this week, and he made a pit stop at an innovative Catholic school in New York City. To mark the occasion, Bellwether has written a number of pieces about our recent (and ongoing) work on Catholic schools:

We also have two projects coming down the pipeline:

  • A donor guidebook for Philanthropy Roundtable about Catholic schools — you can read the first chapter here and an article excerpted from the book here
  • A report for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice focuses on the CMO-like networks gaining traction in Catholic schooling (read more about these in Kelly’s blog post here)