Click here to read the Archdiocese of Omaha's draft report on Catholic schools and parishes.
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More than a decade ago, Catholic schools in Dubuque and Waterloo, Iowa, ran up against a now-familiar conundrum in the world of Catholic education.
Demographics had shifted, enrollment had declined at some schools, and it was becoming too expensive for some parishes to operate their schools.
So local leaders in each city brought the schools together into a school system with a common school board and chief administrator.
Nationally, it's a strategy a growing number of dioceses are pursuing — or are considering, as is the case in the Archdiocese of Omaha — in all or part of their territories.
In Dubuque and Waterloo, initially there were rough patches. Schools closed — several in Dubuque, one in Waterloo — and tuition went up a bit.
But last fall, the decade-old Holy Family Catholic Schools in Dubuque opened a new $10 million middle school. The system will add notebook computers for grades six through 12 this fall. Waterloo's Cedar Valley Catholic Schools added iPads for students in grades six through 12 this year and will open a new middle school in the fall.
“Both school systems are in a very strong place now,” said Jeff Henderson, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. “I don't think either would have been in nearly the same place if not for working together.”
The Archdiocese of Omaha has proposed placing a handful of schools east of 72nd Street into a school system, called a consortium, as one piece of an ongoing strategic planning process for schools and parishes in eastern Omaha.
The process is intended to address challenges such as changing demographics, increasing costs and aging facilities and emerge with revitalized schools and parishes sustainable into the future.
The most recent draft of the plan, presented to parish and school leaders earlier this week, proposes opening the consortium at five school sites in 2013: Holy Cross, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Bernadette, Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Thomas More. The consortium could be expanded to more schools in the future.
Three other schools — Holy Ghost, St. Stanislaus and Assumption-Guadalupe — would close in 2013 and their students would get help enrolling in the new consortium. Several others among the 18 schools studied would continue to operate on their own.
Archdiocese officials noted that the plan still could change before it goes to Archbishop George Lucas, who will have the final say, in late May or early June.
If the archdiocese follows through with creating the consortium, it would hardly be alone in taking that path.
The Archdiocese of New York plans to place many of its schools under 10 regional boards, having closed more than two dozen schools last year and covered a $22 million deficit. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also plans to regionalize a number of schools. Five parishes in Bismarck, N.D., recently placed a preschool, three grade schools and a high school into a new system and are seeking a superintendent.
Actual counts of dioceses or schools that have gone through the process aren't readily available. Nationally, most Catholic elementary and middle schools — about 72 percent — still are sponsored by a single parish, according to the National Catholic Education Association.
But the number of elementary schools sponsored by two or more parishes has grown from just under 9 percent in 1990 to nearly 12 percent this year.
Since 2000, some 1,900 schools have consolidated or closed, according to the organization's data, or roughly 23 percent.
“Catholic education is seeking new, innovative governance models,” said Timothy Cook, a professor of education at Creighton University and director of its Catholic school leadership program. “The parish-school model still works in some cases, but is not sustainable in others.”
The Omaha Archdiocese hired the Wisconsin-based firm Meitler Consultants to help with the planning process, and it recommends the system approach. The firm has seen it work. However, strong leadership and implementation are keys, said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese.
“It is a radical shift from what we're used to,” McNeil said.
A system approach, Cook and others say, allows schools to reap efficiencies by combining marketing, development, recruiting and technology functions. It also can reduce competition among schools for funds and for students. With a common tuition, there's no need for families to switch parishes to get a better rate.
A financial analysis included in the latest draft of the archdiocese plan indicates that reducing empty seats — 962 in the South Omaha schools — and increasing efficiency would lower per-pupil costs and make parish contributions more equitable. Tuition has not yet been determined.
The projected cost per pupil in the consortium would be $4,690 in 2013-14, less than the current average of $4,877 for schools in that area. The total parish subsidy would go from $3.5 million for the 2010-11 school year to $2.9 million in 2013-14, according to the projections.
Finances aren't the only consideration, however. Nor should they be, said Lorraine Ozar, director of the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Chicago's Loyola University. Such changes, she said, also should focus on maintaining schools' mission and high academic standards.
A group Ozar led recently drafted the first set of national standards for effective Catholic schools. The benchmarks include high-quality professional development and collaboration among faculty in the same grade levels and subjects.
Ozar called the emergence of different models for Catholic schools “exciting and healthy.”
“I would hope that this move could be viewed as proactively seizing an opportunity to ensure the future viability and success” of the schools and “to really meet the needs of inner-city children,” she said.
McNeil said the quality of education is not a concern at the Omaha schools being studied, but their facilities are a problem.
At the same time, the Omaha Archdiocese's draft plan notes that the consortium will be designed to strengthen the academic programs and expand extracurricular opportunities, particularly at the middle school level.
Jeff Frost, chief administrator for the Cedar Valley Catholic Schools in Waterloo, said some schools had been a bit “stuck in a rut” in terms of curriculum before the system formed. Now the system — three elementary schools, a high school and a soon-to-be middle school — has one curriculum and professional development plan. It can bring in experts to help.
“That has been the biggest boon to us,” he said.
There weren't many Catholic school systems in existence when Tom Lorang went looking for a new model for the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Catholic Schools 20 years ago. Now the schools' superintendent, Lorang then was principal of O'Gorman High School. Officials in the Sioux Falls diocese had seen declines in number of parishioners and in the nuns and priests who had been the schools' mainstays.
For the schools to remain effective, he said, they needed a new way to govern and finance them.
In the years since, other schools have come to see Sioux Falls' system, which has built three elementary schools and a middle school and conducted a $50 million campaign to rebuild the high school.
“By going citywide, we've been able to offer considerably more tuition assistance,” Lorang said. “And when we did our capital campaign a few years ago, the fact that we were a system helped a great deal.”
He acknowledged, however, that a larger city like Omaha presents more challenges in determining how to set up a system.
The Omaha Archdiocese's draft plan notes that some of those challenges, including the difficulty for people with long school and parish histories to shift from supporting their own schools to backing a school system. Parishes that no longer have their own school, the plan notes, may not feel the same ownership for consortium schools.
Pam Stierman gets it. She and her husband and their families had an 80-year history with Holy Ghost School in Dubuque.
So she was reluctant when the Holy Family system formed and her daughter faced finishing her grade school years at the middle school instead of at Holy Ghost.
But Cynthia, now in eighth grade, has had more class choices, greater access to chemistry labs and additional extracurricular opportunities. She loves show choir. The system will add pre-engineering at the middle school next year and start a high school biomedical sciences program the year after.
“I've done a 180-degree turn,” said Stierman, a pharmacist.
Creighton's Cook, a former Catholic school principal, said he hopes Omahans will support making that shift.
“We have to do a better job of persuading people that Catholic education will be stronger, that there's more to gain than there is to lose,” he said.
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