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Catholic Voice
  January 23, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 2   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Five schools to close, seven gain new life in network

Most Rev.
Michael C. Barber, SJ
A new model for Catholic education

Every time we baptize a baby, part of the sacred rite reminds parents they are the first teachers of their children in our faith. And on that joyous baptismal day, the entire congregation smiles, applauds and agrees to help these parents.

It is my happy duty as a bishop to make sure the parents and teachers who will share our faith with the next generation have the support they need. The most powerful and reliable resource I can offer is Catholic education, so central to developing the faith and morals of our children. There is no more effective way to form the whole person — intellectually, morally and communally — than to infuse a rigorous academic program with the timeless message of Jesus Christ, and deliver it in a safe, respectful atmosphere. Catholic education promotes lifelong commitment to faith, prayer and virtue, a high sense of social justice, greater numbers of religious vocations and an embrace of a way of life based on responsible stewardship.

We have dedicated teachers, committed parents and students, passionate pastors. All have been working hard to support our schools.

But we are facing increasing costs and declining student enrollment trends that have been at work for a long time. And without students — without a critical mass of students — we have had to commit precious resources to increasingly empty buildings, eliminate "auxiliary" teaching positions critical for student success and divert money that could have been used for scholarships to attract more students. It's become something of a death spiral for many of our schools.

And we need to stop the hemorrhaging now. We have a plan to do so, and it is three-fold: Close those schools that show no true path to flourish, create a unique Catholic schools network to bolster schools in trouble and infuse our entire Diocese with a pro-Catholic school mentality.

This plan is a serious and daring refashioning of our beloved Catholic elementary schools. While our schools have never had an easy pathway, a bold vision is needed now to ensure their very survival for our children, grandchildren and generations to come.

We will close five schools. These are schools for which we cannot project a successful return to full enrollment, no matter how we review the trends or the finances. The schools to be closed at the end of June 2017 are:

1. Our Lady of the Rosary, Union City
2. St. Jarlath, Oakland
3. St. Jerome, El Cerrito
4. St. Lawrence O'Toole, Oakland
5. St. Martin de Porres, Oakland

Families with students at those schools are being notified now, so they may have ample time to apply at other Catholic schools. We also recognize that typically charter and private schools close their application phase in mid to late January.

At the same time, we are announcing a plan to build a unique Catholic schools network with seven other diocesan schools. While the schools identified for inclusion in the "Catholic Schools Network" have challenges, we believe it is possible for their enrollment to grow.

There are several advantages of moving these schools into a network. A primary advantage is the accountability of a stand-alone enterprise. Creating a network also improves the depth of the educational experience, by allowing schools to share teaching specialists, professional enrichment and administrative expertise. Thirdly, major foundations are willing to financially support a network that enables systemic change and improves student success.

For instance, when the Diocese of Camden created a similar network, it grew its donor, a New Jersey base from two to 22 foundations, with approximately $5 million in grants per year. Every Catholic school system using this model has experienced increased enrollment, improved academics and strengthened Catholic identity. We can do it, too.

This network will be overseen by an independent board of directors, whose membership I will approve, to ensure transparent accountability for Catholic identity and financial matters. A team will be assembled in early January to begin work on this plan, with the charge to have the network operational by fall 2018.

The seven schools to become members of the new network are:

1. Queen of All Saints, Concord
2. St. Anthony, Oakland
3. St. Catherine of Siena, Martinez
4. St. Cornelius, Richmond
5. St. Elizabeth, Oakland
6. St. Paul, San Pablo
7. St. Peter Martyr, Pittsburg

Finally, we must, as a diocese, recognize future generations deserve solid formation in their faith. Our Catholic schools have always been places of hope, inspiration and success. Our graduates have changed the world for the better, having received a rigorous academic training, an infusion of the joy of the Gospel and witnessed what it means to be a generous and charitable person.

They become good citizens, deeply committed to social justice, the care of the poor and the planet, proud to volunteer their time and talent for others. In fact, independent research suggests the influence of Catholic values and the fostering of Catholic faith and morals are the most important keys to success for the young people educated in urban Catholic schools.

Our pastors and parish leadership are encouraged to reach out to nearby Catholic schools and invite them to present information on their schools to parishioners. Whether this is providing them with time to speak at Masses one weekend a year, have an open house, provide printed material to families enrolled in the parish's religious education program, or a combination of these measures, it is important we each assume our responsibility to inform parents about the benefits of a Catholic education for their children. Indeed, if we don't do it, who will?

But this call to action is just the first request I have for you, in my pursuit of a renewed and reinvigorated Catholic educational system for our diocese. Under the direction of our new superintendent of schools, we will undertake an aggressive strategic plan to revitalize our schools.

Our new approach to Catholic education must be optimistic and sustainable.

This new plan will mirror how other dioceses have successfully rebuilt their Catholic schools on the five pillars of Catholic Identity, Leadership, Academics, Governance and Finance, and Advancement. For each of those pillars, we must identify specific objectives and recommend key strategies to implement them:

Catholic Identity is the heart of our educational system in the East Bay. It is essential the adults who are entrusted with sharing our faith tradition and guiding the moral development of students are themselves well-formed in the faith. Religious instruction must be preeminent in our schools, and we must promote the incorporation of spiritual and charitable works into the curricular and co-curricular planning.

Building on an existing foundation of superb Leadership, the plan must identify, cultivate and retain exceptional principals and teachers and promote a professional atmosphere that both rewards excellence and supports a cohesive community of educators.

Academics, a traditional strength of Catholic schools, are a beacon for parents seeking an outstanding education for their children. We must prepare our students for an increasingly complex and global world, regardless of their personal environment or academic experience prior to enrolling in our schools.

New models for Governance and Finance must be developed that respect the Diocese's commitment to provide a Catholic education to every child who seeks it, anticipating each parish will support a Catholic school, even if it is not located on the parish campus. The closing or consolidation of struggling schools will enhance the strength of all remaining schools in the system, as will sound school-level business and management practices. Corporate and foundation partners who support and believe in our vision of a robust Catholic educational system must be engaged so every Catholic child can have a seat in our schools.

Advancement: In the past, Catholic schools enjoyed healthy enrollments and accomplished communications by word-of-mouth. Classrooms were full and the abundance of successful graduates was a living advertisement for the value of a Catholic education. Today, however, aggressive marketing is essential to increase enrollment and keep Catholic schools accessible and affordable.

Now is the time for us not just to acknowledge the essential role our Catholic schools play in the faith formation of our children, but to embrace it and properly support Catholic education in this diocese. If we do not work together to develop a long-term means for success, we may lose all our schools, or find them only affordable for the well-to-do. While the challenges in this proposal are large, the diocesan leadership prefers those challenges to the painful loss of our Catholic school system.

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