When students begin classes this fall at Most Holy Redeemer in Montgomery, they’ll be trying something new. Instead of being taught as a single grade, grade levels will be paired — first-graders with second-graders, for example — in multi-age classrooms.
The transition is motivated by declining enrollment in the pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school, said the principal, Dominican Sister Mary Margaret Murphy. Today the school, located in Le Sueur County, has 95 students, down from about 110 a few years ago. And, in a small school, 15 students make a difference, she said. “We’re in a rural area where there aren’t a lot of kids,” she said. “Even our public school is declining in enrollment.”
The move to multi-age classrooms is not only about economizing resources, however. Sister Mary Margaret expects the new method also will enhance the school’s instruction. Teachers will be able to collaborate more easily, students are expected to develop stronger leadership skills, and the school community will be more interactive, she said.
In his March 2009 column in The Catholic Spirit, Archbishop John Nienstedt emphasized that the planning process will ensure:
1 Full sacramental ministry.
2 Competent pastoral leaders.
3 Special concern for the needs of the poor, marginalized and immigrant.
4 Catholic school support and inclusion in the planning process.
5 Every parish will be involved in this discussion.
6 Every parish will be expected to evaluate its own resources and adjust accordingly.
7 Respect, patience and honesty in all discussions to build on strengths.
The move in Montgomery is just one example of the ways in which Catholic schools are already addressing changing enrollments and limited resources. Other changes are expected in the future as a result of the current archdiocesan planning process for parishes and schools.
When Archbishop John Nienstedt introduced the planning process in March 2009, he outlined seven principles to guide the process, which is being facilitated by members of an appointed task force. The fourth principle states that the process will include and support Catholic schools.
The viability of schools and their relationships to their supporting parishes will be examined in the process, said task force member Lori Glynn. “The levels of complexity around [the school and parish relationship] are much deeper than if we were just to look at schools themselves,” she said.
Glynn worked in the archdiocese’s Catholic Education and Formation Ministry office — now called the Catholic Schools Office — for 14 years as the director of schools, associate superintendent and then superintendent. In 2008, she left CEFM to become principal of Our Lady of Peace School in Minneapolis.
“Catholic schools have been such a vital part of the teaching mission of the Catholic Church that not to include them in the planning process would be a disservice to their future,” she said.
Currently, there are 89 Catholic elementary schools and 14 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese. More than half of the 217 parishes in the archdiocese sponsor a Catholic school. Ten schools are sponsored by more than one parish.
Although most elementary schools are sponsored by a parish, that’s true of only two high schools — St. Agnes and St. Bernard, both in St. Paul. The task force will take the other high schools into consideration, but they won’t be part of the task force’s recommendations, Glynn said.
Even as the task force prepares to recommend a comprehensive plan, however, the landscape has been changing. On Feb. 18, St. Bernard High School and Holy Childhood School, both in St. Paul, announced they were closing at the end of the 2009-10 school year.
The decisions to close are not related to the planning process, but they do reflect the challenges facing urban Catholic schools, said superintendent of Catholic schools Martha Frauenheim. Identified trends — including uneven enrollments and increasing socio-economic diversity — are expected to influence the planning process.
According to the archdiocese, Catholic high school enrollment increased 5 percent from 2004 to 2009, but Catholic elementary school enrollment decreased by 11 percent. Where enrollment has grown, it has been attributed to new schools, schools targeted at niche populations, and suburban areas where there is significant population growth.
Communities benefit from neighborhoods with a Catholic school, Glynn said. “It is a connector for families, it is a connector for service to the immediate surrounding area, it’s a sign of stability, and therefore it brings new families into the area,” she said. Schools also often coordinate student volunteers for local food shelves, nursing homes and soup kitchens. A Catholic school also evangelizes the community, Glynn added. The percentage of Catholic students in local elementary schools decreased slightly between 2004 and 2009, moving from 93.7 to 91.8 percent. “As our Catholic schools become more diverse with non-Catholic populations, it’s still a wonderful way of doing evangelization on a daily basis,” she said. Not every area in the archdiocese has easy access to a Catholic school, but the planning process hopes to address that, Glynn said. “With the planning process, a major goal is to be sure there are geographic locations where Catholic education is accessible throughout the diocese.”
Despite the benefits Catholic schools provide, parishes sponsoring schools face additional financial challenges, including extra costs for building utilities and maintenance. These costs are rarely covered by tuition alone, Glynn said, especially when a single parish supports a single school. As a result, the parish subsidizes the cost. Additionally, parents are no longer selecting a school for their child solely because they belong to the school’s sponsoring parish, Glynn said. This may result in a more diverse community within the school than the parish, she added. “It’s not unusual for parents who are starting their children out in a school to visit five, six, [or] seven different schools before they make a decision,” she said. “The old geographic boundaries of a school and parish . . . don’t exist anymore.”
Many schools have two tiers of tuition rates: one for parishioners and one for non-parishioners. Some have gone to a one-level tuition rate and offer financial assistance on an individual basis.
At Maternity of Mary-St. Andrew School in St. Paul, which has a single rate, tuition is $4,700. However, scholarships of $1,500 are available to registered, active families at local Catholic parishes. The numbers are similar to the former in-parish and out-of-parish tuition rates, but the approach has changed. “We call families to greater involvement in their parish — it’s not just getting a parishioner rate,” said Melissa Dan, school principal. Families were mailed a tuition contract in January, which requires them to attend Mass regularly and volunteer at the school and in their parish. Families who sign the contract are eligible for a scholarship. Dan has already received more interest from parent volunteers, she said.
The purpose of the tuition agreement is two-fold: the school wants families to invest in their parish as well as school, and it also wants parents to be able to stay at their current parish rather than leave in order to join Maternity of Mary or St. Andrew to receive discounted tuition, said Maternity of Mary pastor Father Peter Williams. He describes the contract not as a “calling to task,” but rather “a challenge to authenticity.”
More than tuition can cover
Across the archdiocese, the number of students eligible to receive free and reduced-price lunch has also increased, even as the overall enrollment has decreased. Meanwhile, tuition has increased 36 percent since the 2003-2004 school year. In the archdiocese, the average tuition for elementary schools has risen from $2,251 in 2003 to $3,063 in 2008.
As tuition rises, schools are examining their financial resources and looking for new models of sustainability, Glynn said.
Some elementary schools, including Risen Christ in Minneapolis, have hired advancement directors to write grants, and connect with alumni and businesses. Fran Rusciano Murnane joined the Risen Christ staff three years ago as the advancement director. Her job is to market the school, raise visibility, and find new sources of funding for a school where 92 percent of its families live at or below the poverty level. “We are faced with a tremendous challenge,” she said. Only nine percent of the schools’ revenue comes from tuition, compared to the average of 65 percent
at archdiocesan Catholic elementary schools. The average Risen Christ family pays $750 a year in tuition.
Although the school uses traditional kinds of fundraising, like direct mailings, its strategic development plan includes working with community businesses and foundations. The school also hosts an annual 400-person gala. Risen Christ is among the urban schools that receive funds from the Pohlad Family Foundation and a legacy grant. With the help of individual donors and an $80,000 grant from an additional source, the school is launching a mentoring program that is expected to build relationships between businesses and the school, Murnane said. “We must be innovative if we are going to be viable,” she said.
Sharing best practices
Throughout its transition process, Most Holy Redeemer has looked to Pope John Paul II School in Minneapolis, which has used multi-age classrooms for six years. Pope John Paul II School, which serves 11 parishes in Northeast Minneapolis, also moved to the model at a time of declining enrollment. The move allowed the 90-student-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school to reduce the number of staff while maintaining educational quality, said its principal, Deb King. She and Father Glen Jensen, pastor of Holy Cross, St. Hedwig and St. Anthony of Padua parishes in northeast Minneapolis, are educating other schools, like Most Holy Redeemer, about their process, she said. “It is so critical to have pastoral support and to have pastoral understanding of what we do, which is what we’ve got,” King said. “Without that, it can’t come to fruition.”
Planning process recommendations could include school mergers, but the invisible boundaries of public school districts add another challenge to that option, Glynn said. Because of the resources some Catholic schools share with the public schools in their districts — such as transportation and funds for special needs education — Catholic schools are limited in how much they can collaborate with other Catholic schools outside their district. It would be difficult for Catholic schools in different public school districts to collaborate or merge, even if they were near each other, Glynn said.
Challenging or not, mergers haven’t been part of the archdiocese’s recent history. Within the past 10 years, no Catholic schools in the archdiocese have merged, and two multi-parish schools have deconsolidated. However, Glynn stressed that all ideas “are on the table,” since the task force is still listening to deanery recommendations and will not make its recommendations to Archbishop Nienstedt until July. Catholic Spirit