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Taking a look at Catholic schools

By Christine Williams
Posted: 10/28/2005

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BRIGHTON — The Archdiocese of Boston has embarked on a process to improve, strengthen and revitalize Boston’s Catholic schools before the close of this decade. With that goal in mind, the strategic planning process has been dubbed the 2010 Initiative.

“Through an open and inclusive process that draws on the collective talents of outside experts and significant resources already here, we have the opportunity to chart a path that will make our Catholic schools the finest in the nation,”said Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley in a statement publicly announcing the program.

Meitler Consultants, a leading national Catholic consulting organization with experience in education which has worked with the archdiocese’s of Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark and St. Louis, has been hired to look at overall enrollment trends, financing, and tuition costs, said Sister Kathleen Carr, superintendent of the schools for the archdiocese.

Currently about two-thirds of the Catholic schools are located within Route 128 while two-thirds of Catholics live outside that area, Sister Kathleen explained.

“The challenge is to continue a presence in the city, continue to serve the poor and the immigrant population while at the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, to respond to where the demographic shifts have gone —out into the suburbs where there are fewer Catholic schools,”she said.

The population changes are ongoing and will likely cause more school closings. Over the past four years, 21 schools have closed in the archdiocese.

St. Anthony School in Allston, the most recent school to close, shut down just weeks before classes were to begin this year. The closing was due to a decline in enrollment and financial pressures because of that decline. Enrollment was adversely effected by demographic changes in the neighborhood. According to registration requests, families of 29 children left the neighborhood, 22 children graduated this year and another 25 families did not respond.

The archdiocese’s 168 remaining Catholic schools serve more than 53,000 students in 58 communities, according to the Catholic School Office’s Web site.

After collecting all of this information, Meitler will then compare the data to the cost of living and census data, Sister Carr said. In the first part of the study, community demographic data will be compiled by region for the years 1990 and 2000 as well as projections for the years 2010 and 2020. The data will include school-age population trends, poverty levels and ethnic mix. Then Meitler will assess Catholic population trends by evaluating parish membership, baptism and religious education enrollment trends.

All of the results will be shared with pastors, principals and members of the community at regional meetings in November. A Strategic Planning Committee has been appointed, and recommendations from the study are expected in late spring, said Sister Kathleen.

Jack Connors, who will lead the Strategic Planning Committee said, “We’re determined to present the archbishop a plan that is actionable, pragmatic and serves the long-term educational needs of the community. To that end, we have retained a team of professional educational experts who will draw on the collective experience of pastors and principals and other important stakeholders in our schools.”

Connors, chairman of the communications firm Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopolis, is chairman of the board of trustees at Boston College.

The study will focus on both primary and secondary parish schools, while independent Catholic high schools will be invited to provide feedback, the statement said.

“All of the other high schools are independent and the archdiocese does not plan for them,”the statement said. “However, significant efforts will be made to involve them, communicate with them and to improve the level of collaboration between the high schools in each region and with their surrounding elementary schools,” it continued.

“The initiative in Boston is part of a broader mission set out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this June toward making Catholic schools available, accessible and affordable to all parents and their children, including those who are poor and middle class,” the release said.

Research done by the U.S. Department of Education, National Catholic Education Association and other independent agencies shows that Catholic schools close the achievement gap for poor, minority, and inner-city students, the statement added.

“The Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston play a vital role in our community,”said Connors. “I can think of no more important mission than ensuring that our young people —regardless of their financial status —have access to high-quality, values-based education.”