The start of the 2020-2021 school season, however frustrating and uncertain, will miss about 150 Catholic schools that did not make it through the pandemic. It is hard not to grieve.
Yet there is hope.
Picture new flora that sprouts and carpets the earth after a volcanic eruption. Our eruption, without fire and fury, is equally devastating. The evolution of the ecosystem of school personnel, relocation patterns, demographics, urban needs, technology and finances overpowered traditional Catholic schools.
The dogged efforts to hold on to or retrofit legacy models failed to halt the large-scale exit of about one-half of Catholic schools since the '60s. Nevertheless, in the past two decades, with urgency and many people stepping up, new approaches and mindsets have burst with boldness and vigor.
Let me name just a few. First, we now use a range of ownership structures (beyond a parish, for example) accompanied by new governance arrangements. These expand decision-making beyond one person or a few people to a board of pastoral, diocesan and lay members.
While broadening perspectives, expertise and resources, boards are also more likely to link mission to analyses, plans and goals that foster direction, coherence and stability. Well-managed boards also instill accountability and transparency.
Second, extensive collaboration has brought together parishes, dioceses, networks of Catholic schools, universities, ministries such as Catholic Charities and Catholic health systems, local community services and business enterprises. Collaboration not only adds resources and services but enables transformation when individual enterprises act as a connected whole.
Collective purchase arrangements shave costs. External management partners have reversed enrollment declines, stemmed growing deficits and built solid platforms for future operations. Collaboration aligns with the Gospel spirit of sharing, trust and mutuality. Collaboration is a 21st-century skill that students must learn but schools cannot teach if the practice is foreign to them.
Third, curricula innovations have spread into big and small schools in cities and suburbs. Gaining ground is blended learning that encompasses both online learning and face-to-face facilitation. This can pivot the focus and control of learning away from teachers to students.
Integrated and well-executed blended learning enables students to learn at their own pace following their own paths and setting their own scope of inquiry. This style of learning accommodates the current generation's learning styles, attention span and reliance on the internet.
The pandemic illustrates the flexibility needed and provided by blended learning. This has also opened up new opportunities in home-schooling and micro-schools that serve 40 to 160 students.
Fourth, the nurturing of talent in both leadership and teaching roles for Catholic schools is no longer taken for granted. A school cannot succeed without a strong principal. To meet this need, different academies offer programs for principal development, mentoring and apprenticeship.
While we do not have religious sisters to accompany children in their learning and formation, a number of Catholic universities send graduates into Catholic K-12 classrooms while earning their master's degrees. Just as important, these initiatives foster discernment of vocation, deepening of faith and an appreciation for how the church evangelizes. It is the birthing ground of new energies and ideas.
The work is far from done: We need vision, scale and experimentation. Change of this magnitude is hard. Those who succeed are not the "born" change agents or those with money, but those who care deeply. I do believe that the love for Catholic education is deep and broad. This has led us to finally prioritize mission over method and vitality over control.
God makes all things new.
(Woo is retired CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services, where she served from 2012 to 2016.)
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