For decades, Catholic schools have seen dropping enrollments in the face of demographic challenges—namely, smaller Catholic families and shifting populations. When confronted with new realities, some schools double down on their past practices (looking for a new group of teaching sisters, for example, or making more presentations at their parish Masses). Often, those efforts fail and those schools fade into obscurity. Others look to shift their paradigm and serve new populations. Serving new populations, however, necessitates adapting your program(s).
Among the many Catholic schools in the Washington, DC area, Bishop McNamara High School stands out as a school which has nimbly adapted to their new reality. Opened in 1964 in suburban Prince George’s County, the school was staffed by Brothers of the Holy Cross and served an all-male, mostly Catholic, mostly middle class white population. Founded as an integrated school during a time when there were still segregated school s in Prince George’s County, there were protests of Bishop McNamara’s integrated practices.
Now the school sits next to a closed Catholic elementary school and has no Holy Cross brothers on staff. Its population is mostly African-American but incredibly diverse—working class, middle class, and affluent. Catholic and non-Catholic. The school is full, the students are successful, a vibrant and success-oriented environment permeates.
How did the shift occur? On my tour of the school, one factor stood out. The stage had been transformed into a dance studio and the African drum & dance class was taking place. Serving as a fine arts credit (and a co-curricular activity), the students enthusiastically drummed and danced in front of an equally energetic African-American teacher. My completely amateur video can be seen here.
Perhaps the brothers in 1964 could have imagined this new reality. Becoming a diverse school was not something they undertook as a program to supplement their enrollment. They embraced what becoming a more diverse school would mean and have privileged cultural expressions of their African-American students.
Against the backdrop of Bishop George Murry’s presentation to the American bishops in Baltimore (the very same day in Baltimore) on the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism whose message was that racism needs to be confronted publicly and all cultural expressions within and without the church need to be celebrated, Bishop McNamara serves as a reminder that “becoming diverse” is more than lip service or offering enrollment slots. It’s an embrace of diverse cultural identities with the knowledge that diversity will change us from our predominantly white paradigms into something richer and more genuinely inclusive.
I can’t help but think of the similarities to the movement toward more academically inclusive environments within Catholic schools. As we open our programs to serve more students with diverse academic, emotional, and physical needs we need to understand how those programs will transform our schools away from the middle- and upper-class predominantly white college prep programs. If we heed the call to “open wide the doors” we need to commit to the changes that will follow.
Bishop McNamara serves as a reminder that these changes will bring a more rich and vibrant school environment.
I’m waking up in snowy Bozeman on March 4th, the only day of the year that is a complete sentence. My eldest son and I travelled here yesterday to root on Billing Central Catholic HS. The team dedicated their tournament to the memory of Chloe Lai, a 4th grader from St. Francis Catholic School who died suddenly last week after a short bout with influenza. Please join me in lifting up the St. Francis School community in prayers as well as Chloe’s parents. Alas, not all stories have fairy tale endings as the Rams’ efforts ended in defeat. But it was a well-played close game and we are proud of them.
In my blog today I spotlight Bishop McNamara HS in suburban Washington, DC. Founded as a mostly-white all-boys school, it’s now a beacon of diversity.
- “Why Increased Enrollment of Hispanic Student Benefits Catholic Schools” is a great piece by Dr. Hosffman Ospino of Boston College in America. This is the first article in the American Catholic News section.
- Pair that article with the next two article in the American Catholic News section—the NY Times opinion piece “The Cruel Ploy of Taking Immigrant Children From Their Parents” and “Why Do Hispanics Leave the Church?” We need to face the realities (declining enrollments alongside a growing population of Hispanics in the Church) and we need to respond. I think every Catholic school should put up a not-so-subtle banner outside the front door saying “Welcome Dreamers.”
- In the Leadership section, “Plan a Better Meeting with Design Thinking” from Harvard Business Review should help you re-think your faculty meetings, your Advisory Council meetings, and those boring meetings with the superintendent!
- In the Teaching & Learning section, I’ve included great articles on project-based learning and a great common craft video on flipping classrooms.
- In the Miscellaneous section, Matt Brower’s essay “Reflections on Human Life and Dignity” is a well-articulated argument for a consistent ethic of life.
Have a great week!