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Archdiocese to announce in February final plans for strengthening Catholic education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2011 - Back in March, Archbishop Robert Carlson introduced an ambitious plan to revitalize Catholic schools in the St. Louis Archdiocese by the time the education system celebrates its 200th birthday in 2018.

His vision: More students, whose Catholic identity would be deeper, from school programs that would be available to anyone, regardless of ability to pay.

That comprehensive proposal was the result of many months of consultation with thousands of the people throughout the archdiocese. Since that time, four committees -- focusing on catechesis and academic excellence, evangelization, social justice and stewardship -- met regularly to flesh out the details, then submitted recommendations to Carlson for review.

The next step: presentation of the conclusions during a business meeting for pastors and principals during Catholic Schools Week, on Feb. 2.

The ultimate goal is to reverse a long period of decline for archdiocesan schools, to reach the point where, in the words of Dan Conway, who has played a key role in the program, "Excellence is not an option. It is essential for success."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

By the time Catholic education in St. Louis celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2018, Archbishop Robert Carlson wants classrooms to be fuller, Catholic identity to be more vibrant and finances in such good shape that everyone who wants to attend should be able to enroll regardless of whether they can pay.

Carlson presented that vision to an audience of religious and lay education leaders at Rosati-Kain high school Thursday afternoon. He said he knows that the goals are ambitious, given the recent enrollment and money problems of the archdiocesan schools, but he expressed faith that the broad-based initiative will turn the situation around.

"I believe we can stop the decline and begin to grow our schools once again," Carlson said. Sixty-six percent of Catholic children of elementary school age and 35 percent of high schoolers in the 11-county area covered by the archdiocese attend Catholic schools. "This is unacceptable," Carlson said. "We cannot permit half of our children and youth to 'fall through the cracks' and remain untouched by the teaching and practice of our church."

The archbishop's plan includes a fund-raising effort, as yet unnamed and with no specific monetary goal set, which is scheduled to begin in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Carlson noted that in Orlando, Fla., which he said had similar needs, such a drive raised $100 million.

Charts released by the archdiocese gave a stark picture of the problems that Carlson faces. Since 1960, annual tuition at Catholic elementary schools has risen from near zero to close to $4,000. During the same period, enrollment, which peaked in 1960 around 90,000, has dropped to near 30,000, and the number of elementary schools has fallen to about 125 from more than 200.

To reverse those trends, Carlson laid out a plan with three priorities:

  • Schools must have a vibrant Catholic identity, with everything about its programs grounded in the teaching of the church. "We must never impose our Catholic faith on anyone," Carlson said in a pastoral letter released along with his presentation, "but we should be eager to share what we believe with others -- inviting them to learn, to pray and to serve with us.
  • Schools must be growing through active recruitment and enrollment management. "We cannot be content with the status quo, or, worse, with declining enrollments in our schools," he said.
  • In what he said may be the greatest challenge, schools must be financially healthy and provide tuition help to those who could not otherwise attend. "The cost of a Catholic school education threatens the continued existence of too many schools in our archdiocese," he said.

Now he has to fill in the details of how to reach his goals.

    The program unveiled Thursday is the result of several months of community meetings and listening sessions involving nearly 3,000 people. Dan Conway, who helped lead the program, said the wide-ranging nature of what Carlson is proposing is needed to make the dramatic changes necessary. "A Band-Aid or piecemeal solution simply won't work in the long run," Conway said. "Whatever solutions we come up with must be comprehensive."
    But Conway and Carlson emphasized that while committees that will meet in the next several months are expected to have recommendations for moving forward by November, the effort will respect the diversity of the archdiocese. Changes will not be dictated from the top, and what works in one area won't necessarily work in another.

    "The ideas came from the parishes," Carlson noted. "We didn't do this stuff in the back room. We never want to have things so centralized that we take away local interest and support." Carlson said four concepts will drive the improvements: catechesis (faith education) and academic excellence; evangelization; social justice; and stewardship. He stressed that vibrant schools and vibrant parishes go hand in hand, with each drawing strength and enthusiasm from the other.

    By 2018, according to his vision, "Catholics who once left the church will be coming home. Registrations and parish membership will be increasing; Sunday Mass attendance and the reception of the sacraments -- especially the sacrament of penance -- will be on the rise. Youth and young adult ministries will be vibrant. Increasing numbers of Catholics will be actively involved in a variety of parish-based ministries."

    Drawing on the legacy of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who opened the first free school west of the Mississippi River in 1818, and Cardinal Joseph Ritter, who desegregated Catholic schools in St. Louis in 1947 -- seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court decreed such action nationwide -- Carlson said Catholic schools are vital to the future of the faith.

    "Our biggest challenge," he said, "is having parents realize that the best way to hand on the Catholic faith is the Catholic school."

    Asked what he considered the public perception of the archdiocese's school system to be, he said, "We do a good job of educating in a disciplined environment. I'm proud of that."

    Conway noted that the archdiocese cannot expect to reverse a long period of decline overnight, but he fully expects the drive to succeed with the help of families and parishes throughout the region. "Excellence is not an option," he said. "It is essential for success... . By 2018, education in our Catholic schools will be unparalleled."

    Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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