TOPICS > Education > Pope Francis in the U.S.

Struggling Catholic schools seek ways to set themselves apart

September 24, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Today only about 2 million American students attend Catholic school, down from 5 million in the 1960s, due to a variety of social and economic reasons. Thousands of schools have closed as church leaders and educators struggled to make the finances work. The NewsHour's April Brown reports on how some have figured out how to keep the doors open and serve a new generation of students.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow, Pope Francis continues his American tour with a stop at a Catholic school in New York City.

Since the 1960s, enrollment at Catholic schools in the United States has fallen by more than 50 percent. But the one Pope Francis will visit and some others like it have found ways to keep their doors open.

The NewsHour’s April Brown has our American Graduate report.

APRIL BROWN: She may only be in fourth grade, but Ngueubou Kamwa is becoming very media-savvy. Over the past few weeks, she’s been interviewed by dozens of news organizations at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic school in New York’s East Harlem neighborhood to talk about the impending visit of the leader of the Catholic Church.

Ngueubou will actually get to meet Pope Francis when he stops by the school, and she knows quite a bit about him.

NGUEUBOU KAMWA, Student: And his real name is actually Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I know that he’s from Argentina. And that he lives in Vatican City.

APRIL BROWN: Seventh-grader Jade Fuentes has also been studying the life of the pontiff.

JADE FUENTES, Student: He had loved animals, and he still does. Because he relates to Saint Francis, that’s where he had chosen his name.

APRIL BROWN: Jade’s mother, Nicole Fuentes, went to a Catholic school a few blocks away.

NICOLE FUENTES, Jade’s mother: This is eighth grade gradation.

APRIL BROWN: Fuentes says the area has changed a lot since then.

NICOLE FUENTES: This neighborhood was diverse. You had Italian immigrants, Puerto Rican, African-American, Polish.

APRIL BROWN: Now it’s largely African-American and Hispanic, with fewer Catholics and many families that hit hard times during the recession.

NICOLE FUENTES: Things just happened economically to this neighborhood, and we lost out on a lot of schools. And my school was one of them. The church still stands, but the school is no longer here.

APRIL BROWN: St. Cecilia’s is just one of about 6,500 Catholic schools that have closed in the U.S. over the past few decades. In the 1960s, there were nearly 13,000 across the country, educating more than five million students.

Today, only about two million students attend Catholic school, and that’s due to a variety of reasons, including falling birth rates among Catholics, the rise of charter schools in urban areas, and more Catholics moving to the suburbs. The cost of running these schools has skyrocketed too, leaving many struggling to stay open.

CHARLES ZECH, Villanova University: The parochial school system as we have known it over the years is a dinosaur. They can’t possibly survive, given the economics of the situation.

APRIL BROWN: Charles Zech is an economics professor at Villanova University who studies how churches manage their finances. Zech says one major change in their work force has hurt Catholic schools, which are historically known for both academic rigor and strict discipline.

CHARLES ZECH: Back in the day, when parochial schools were administered and most teachers were nuns, the labor costs were extremely low. You would be hard-pressed to find any nun teaching in parochial schools today.

APRIL BROWN: Lay teachers now fill most of those posts, and get paid more than nuns, who take a vow of poverty. Zech says it can be very difficult to manage these institutions with fewer resources.

Historically, church leaders, the educators, they don’t have financial backgrounds to be able to manage this kind of problem, do they?

CHARLES ZECH: Parochial schools are under the purview of the pastor of the parish. And, for one thing, no priest I know became a pastor because he wanted to run a small business, which is what a parish and a school are. In addition, seminaries do just a terrible job of training their guys on management skills.

APRIL BROWN: One Catholic school network that emerged in the mid-1990s has found an innovative way to deal with the financial challenges of parochial education. There are now 30 Cristo Rey schools across the country, including Don Bosco in Maryland.

MAN: For you alone are the holy one. You alone are the lord.

APRIL BROWN: Catholic traditions, including mass, are an important part of the day at Don Bosco, which found a home in a closed Catholic elementary school.

One of the features that sets these schools apart is that they not only offer a college preparatory education, but a work-study program as well. Each student is paired with an employer and works one day a week for all four years, helping to offset part of the $13,000-a-year tuition.

Senior Carlos Lopez has spent three years at the Washington, D.C., area power company, Pepco. He says he’s become more confident, invested in his own education, and now has skills that will be useful in any workplace.

CARLOS LOPEZ, Student: I got to practice how to introduce myself, how to set a good impression. I learned that those are really important out in the real world.

APRIL BROWN: The president of Don Bosco Cristo Rey, Father Michael Conway, says the purpose of Catholic schools is much the same as it has always been.

FATHER MICHAEL CONWAY, President, Don Bosco Cristo Rey: Here in this country Catholic education came about as a result of the huge immigration process that took place in the 1800s and the cry of Catholic families to have their own schools. Many of them were struggling within the public school system to fit in. Many of them were ostracized.

APRIL BROWN: Only now, he says, many Catholic schools are just serving different groups of young people.

FATHER MICHAEL CONWAY: That’s why this is a unique school, because its mission is specifically for those who are at the poverty level or below.

APRIL BROWN: Our Lady Queen of Angels in Harlem has a similar mission, making sure a Catholic education is within reach for some of the city’s most disadvantaged students. But it’s found a different way to keep the doors open by turning to a strategy charter schools have used for years, hiring a management organization to run things.

The Archdiocese of New York inked an agreement with the nonprofit Partnership for Inner-City Education to oversee the educational and financial needs of Our Lady Queen of Angels and five other Catholic schools in Harlem and the Bronx.

Kathleen Porter-Magee is the superintendent of the six partnership schools.

KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE, Superintendent, Partnership for Inner-City Education: Over the past several years, I think the conversation about urban Catholic education has been one of pessimism, of sadness that schools have been closing. But I think we’re actually at a moment where the conversation is and should be about a renaissance and a real revitalization.

APRIL BROWN: The partnership has been working to improve efficiency and share best practices among its six schools and stabilize revenue streams through a network of donors. The schools can’t depend on tuition, because more than two-thirds of the students need and receive scholarships.

KATHLEEN PORTER-MAGEE: One of the things that Pope Francis has really focused is bringing the Catholic Church back to is mission of service to disadvantaged communities. And I know that that is something that has been part of what urban Catholic schools have done for generations and is certainly something that they do here at Our Lady Queen of Angels.

APRIL BROWN: And many believe that’s why the pope has chosen to visit this school, which has taught children since 1892, many of them from immigrant families like Ngueubou’s.

Her father, Jean-Pierre Kamwa, is originally from Cameroon.

JEAN-PIERRE KAMWA, Ngueubou’s Father: Our neighborhood is predominantly immigrant, low-income, and having people who are out of work, like myself. So, if the pope comes to our neighborhood, that means that he’s going to try to reach where they are.

APRIL BROWN: Ngueubou, meanwhile, has been focusing on what’s she’s expected to do when she meets the pope.

NGUEUBOU KAMWA: When he comes in the room, we’re going to sing the prayer of St. Francis to him, and we might, like, talk with him and pray with him.

APRIL BROWN: And as many in this community hope Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. will bring Catholics back into the fold, there is also belief that his stop at Our Lady Queen of Angels could spark a renewed interest in Catholic education as well.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m April Brown in New York City.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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