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Time To Re-Imagine Catholic Schools

By: Rob Birdsell

The fact that as many people work for Catholic schools today as did in 1960, when there were twice as many schools and three times as many students, points to a serious lack of adaptation and innovation on the part of Catholic school leaders.

“From 1960 to 2017, half of Catholic schools closed (12,893 schools were cut to 6,429) and enrollment has been cut nearly by two-thirds (5,253,000 students vs. 1,878,824). Yet during the same period, school staff has remained steady, with 151,902 staff in 1960 and 152,883 in 2017. As Catholic schools were shuttered, families left, and low-cost religious staff disappeared, Catholic school leaders kept staffing levels exactly the same.” “Why Can’t the Middle Class Afford Catholic School Anymore?” (Greg Dolan. Education Next. 8/15/2018.)

In reality, Catholic schools did not keep the same staffing levels but rather doubled the number of adults to children.

Recently, I was invited to lunch (outside) with the President and Board Chair of a Catholic High School. They were in dire straits, having burned through their million-dollar savings account over the past five years, and asked if I had the silver bullet to save their school. They began telling me about the school, and the one area I was astonished by is that they had both a President and Principal for a school of fewer than 200 students. The ratio between adults and students was clearly unbalanced.

While the President/Principal model has worked well for many schools, it must be carefully assessed for schools under 500 students. I also questioned their small class sizes. While this pleases the faculty and parents think it enhances their child’s learning, I have always been a proponent of larger class sizes at the high school level for two reasons: first, it brings more diversity of opinion to discussions; and secondly, there is little evidence to show that smaller class sizes in high school actually improve student outcomes. Schools need to assess their staffing models and adapt to a new model. And given the general decentralization of Catholic schools, bold leaders have the freedom to do so. What has been done in the past (circa 1960 or 1990) is not necessarily the best staffing model for 2020.

So, where does this leave us? The first step is to right-size the organizational structure of Catholic schools but cannot alone create a financially viable model for the future of Catholic schools. A school’s property is its greatest asset, after teachers, and sits virtually empty most nights and on weekends. Schools could adopt some of the moves restaurants have been making. Restaurants would often sit empty for long hours, but not as much anymore. A friend explained to me that the biggest drag on his restaurant’s ability to be profitable is downtime on its facility. He now maximizes all of his properties. One property he owns is productive 22 hours a day. At 4:00 AM, the bakers begin work, and at 5:30 AM, they open their doors to a coffee shop/lunch restaurant to serve customers until it closes at 3:00. Meanwhile, at the same property right next door, using the same kitchen, a pizza place and bar opens at 4:00 for dinner, and the bar stays open until 1:00 AM. After cleaning the restaurant, the night shift locks the place up to about 2:00 AM.

This model cannot be perfectly transposed on a school, but the thinking can be adapted. How can schools better utilize their physical property? One school I work with, signed a long-term land lease with a real estate developer who has completed the development of senior living facility on his campus. The two institutions have also developed a curriculum to integrate their communities–creating volunteer opportunities for students and residents. Senior can volunteer to work Friday night football games collecting tickets, and students can volunteer to read to seniors with more advanced dementia. Another school I work with was built for 2,000 students and is now under 1,000. Instead of keeping the entire building heated and maintained for half capacity, they closed off half the building and leased it to a gifted school that has plans to upgrade the facility. It’s worth every school doing a property assessment and develop a plan to optimize its second greatest asset.

Schools should also evaluate their online strategy in the same way higher education institutions did 20 years ago. The pandemic has given every student, teacher, and parent a “remote learning” experience. But very few have experienced true “online learning” developed with an instructional designer, uses an engineered curriculum meant to be taught virtually, and is led by teachers trained to teach online. Most schools I have talked with over the past eight months simply took what they were doing in a brick and mortar school and put it on Zoom or Google classroom. A perfectly reasonable response to a pandemic that none of us have experienced before or could have anticipated just a year ago. But now is the time for schools to step back and think about how they want to strategically involve online learning–as very few think we are going back to the way things were.

Before the pandemic, 30% of all higher education was taught online, and less than 1% of secondary education was done online. Given the shake up coming to higher education, many expect the 30% to increase, and secondary education will also likely increase its online presence. To what degree, no one knows, but most agree, we will have more online learning going forward. While COVID may have driven the change we see today, it is clear that that change reflects the needs and culture of today.

The big question for Catholic school leaders and their boards is what will successful Catholic schools look like in ten years? They will not look like they did in 2019.

I recognize how challenging these times are for all educators and especially Catholic schools. While some schools are seeing an uptick in interest from public school families, this wave of interest will not be sustained next year as vaccines and other therapeutics are rolled out. In addition, Catholic school enrollment continues to decline amidst a growing “free” public option. Even with a greater opportunity to win over new families to Catholic schooling’s wonderful gift, we must demonstrate and market our strengths. Central to this is our ability to adapt quickly to the times, to shift staffing, to adjust property usage, and to embrace the role of online education. Innovation and disruption will be key to the evolution of Catholic schools if they are to survive and thrive.


Rob Birdsell is President of Catholic Virtual, Executive Director of the Institute for Leadership and Innovation in Education, host of the Podcast The Next Class, a senior advisor to Amerigo Education, a member of the Aspen Global Leaders Network, and a Member of the Board of Directors at Loyola Press.

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