CLS Keynote Presentation: “Catholic Schools Looking to the Future”

img_3634Today, NCEA welcomed George V. Murry, SJ, Bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, Chair-elect of the USCCB Committee on Catholic Education and Chairman of the NCEA Board of Directors, as keynote speaker at the NCEA 2016 Catholic Leadership Summit in Indianapolis. This year’s gathering is the largest Catholic school diocesan leadership gathering hosted by NCEA in ten years. The presentation “Catholic Schools Looking to the Future: Facing the Enrollment Challenge Head-On” begins a conversation about what actions can be taken, both locally and nationally, to further the mission of Catholic schools. While careful analysis of the challenges facing Catholic schools is vital, the major focus must be on proclaiming the good news of Catholic education with joy and a vision of growth. Catholic education has and continues to make significant contributions in today’s society.

As leaders, we must face the reality of an overall national enrollment decline. Addressing this challenge is the responsibility of all of us – the entire Church and society at large,” Bishop Murry emphasized. “Catholic schools are a gift to the nation and need us all to work together for their growth, both through local action in our particular schools, and at the national level across the country. And there is much that we, as professional educators, teachers, principals, staff, superintendents, pastors and bishops, can do and indeed are doing to grow enrollment in our Catholic school.

Bishop Murry’s keynote focused on five major areas: the current state of schools, enrollment challenges, proposed responses and solutions, the role of Catholic school leaders and why Catholic schools are important.

Last year there were 6,525 Catholic schools across the country that provided an academically excellent and faith-filled education to 1,915,836 Catholic school students nationwide. That includes 1,337,630 elementary/middle school students and 578,206 secondary students. Data shows that Catholic schools outperform their public school counterparts on test scores and academics.

Bishop Murry pointed out that great success stories for the future of Catholic education are happening at the leadership level in dioceses across the country. Chicago’s turnaround project, Los Angeles’s growth in dual immersion schools, New York’s regionalization work, Philadelphia’s funding projects and Memphis’s donor and parent partnership programs are all stabilizing and growing enrollment nationwide.

“Common to the good things happening of course is exceptional leadership, and that leadership is here in this room,” noted Bishop Murry.

He continued to touch on several of the many varying causes of enrollment decline including demographic shifts, increasing tuition, changes in faith practice and hindrance from the government. In light of the overall picture, Bishop Murry stressed that all leaders must take a critical look at how we can together grow enrollment. Much of this work is simply finding out what works and sharing the best practices – all with growth mindset.

Yes, we need to plan our response and be intentional and measured, but as leaders first and foremost we need to say that this time, now, today, is our time. We are the ones in leadership now and so the responsibility falls to us to do all we can to support schools and to grasp the opportunities before us. In twenty or thirty years it will be someone else’s turn to be in leadership, but now God has put us in the job we have and it is up to us. In this context, the urgency is real and we can’t just wait and not act, as if things will just change without our effort.

Bishop Murry then identified areas of focus that will help address enrollment including: Catholic identity and formation of teachers and leaders, demonstrated performance, proclaiming the value of Catholic schools, market research, intentional outreach to welcome Latino/Hispanic students, parental choice of initiatives, funding, quality and data.

Before Bishop Murry opened the conversation up to the diocesan leaders in the audience to expand on these topics, he stressed the importance of working with hope.

“It comes from faith in the fact that each of us can point to change in our lives, to some work that God has done to make us different, and therefore we believe that God can make a difference through our work – even a difference in the national enrollment trend in Catholic schools.”

Following the keynote, three superintendents from across the country, offered responses on specific aspects of the Bishop’s remarks.

Mary Beth Mueller, Executive Director of the Division of Education and Evangelization and Superintendent, Diocese of Phoenix, spoke on the topic of Catholic identity and aligning schools with a meaningful mission.

“Are schools advertising themselves as Catholic schools?” posed Ms. Mueller. “I truly believe if we support Catholic schools, we must talk about being in Catholic schools and are proud of Catholic schools. Not private schools, not faith-based schools but Catholic schools.”

Ms. Mueller emphasized that hiring for mission is an imperative part of owning our Catholic identity. “Do our teachers know when they walk through the door what our expectations are? They are choosing to put themselves in the community. But we as leaders must take seriously our responsibility to articulate our mission and value.”

Kathy Almazol, Superintendent of Schools, Diocese of San Jose, spoke of the importance of proclaiming the value of Catholic education. “Relationships with the families who choose Catholic schools are essential to building the faith life in the school community.” One example of such a relationship is San Jose’s Drexel model of funding, a resource-rich, cutting-edge approach to Catholic education. Committed to redefining student engagement through robust technology and data-driven instruction, the Drexel School System is Transforming Catholic Education.

Dr. Timothy J. McNiff, Superintendent, Archdiocese of New York reflected on Bishop Murry’s remarks that “we have much we need and can do for Catholic schools.” With this in mind, Dr. McNiff underlined that the “we” is dependent on finding the right adults to work in and for our Catholic schools. “We must find the right adults, hire them and give them professional development,” he said. “Strategic plans get mitigated if we do not have the right adults in place.”

The reflection from the superintendents was punctuated by a question and answer session with the audience. Bishop Murry, the three superintendents and Dr. Thomas Burnford, president/CEO of NCEA, offered answers as a panel to questions posed directly from the audience. Participants offered questions via an interactive mobile app platform and via in-person presentation. Questions focused on the role of bishops and pastors in Catholic education and how diocesan school leaders can work with them in building the future of Catholic school education as well as the need to develop funding models and tuition assistance that meet the needs of all families who want to send their children to Catholic schools.

The keynote session concluded with a promise to develop the dialogue throughout the remainder of the leadership summit. This will begin as Dr. Burnford expands on the keynote discussion and NCEA’s role in the future of enrollment for Catholic schools at a follow-up conversation on Tuesday, October 25.