Seeking to reverse years of declining school enrollment, the Albany Catholic Diocese on Monday formally launched a new initiative to boost interest in Catholic education.
The three-year program, called Covenant to Educate, will focus on improving Catholic schools and selling the strengths of their program, according to Bishop Howard Hubbard.
The diocesan plan, which a task force has been working on for 18 months, includes centralizing administrative services, increasing marketing and collaborating with Catholic colleges and businesses.
“We have an excellent product,
but unfortunately it has become either unaffordable for parents in these recessionary times or unappreciated in our own Catholic community and the wider society because we have failed to tell our story adequately,” Hubbard said at a news conference with other diocesan officials Monday morning at Mater Christi School in Albany.
The diocese has lost about 1,800 students in the last five years. In fall 2005, there were 5,177 students in grades kindergarten through eight and 1,394 in four middle and high schools for grades six through 12. This fall, that number dropped to 3,543 for K-8 schools and 1,157 for the middle/high schools, according to diocesan spokesman Ken Goldfarb.
Enrollment has been dropping at a rate of 3 percent to 5 percent a year, according to Sister Jane Herb, the diocese’s school superintendent. Average class size is about 18-22 students, smaller than the public schools, Herb said.
In addition to the economy, Goldfarb said other factors are the migration of Catholics from the cities to suburbs and people drifting away from their faith.
At the same time, a declining number of priests and other religious vocations has created challenges for Catholic education.
“In my 21 years of Catholic schools, I had just one lay teacher,” Hubbard said.
While religious officials would work for a small stipend, lay people earn regular salaries — although they are smaller than what they could make in the private sector, Hubbard said. That has driven up the cost of education.
Hubbard said in an increasingly secular society, the mission of Catholic education is more important than ever.
“Looking back at Catholic schools in the 1940s and ’50s of my upbringing, the broader culture served to reinforce the values and ideals instilled by our Catholic schools,” he said. “Today, that has changed dramatically with our society influenced so profoundly by individualism, consumerism, secularism and moral relativism.”
The plan calls for centralized services, which can include marketing, teacher recruitment and training and financial aid.
Another aspect of the plan is strengthening partnerships between churches and schools.
“Strong parishes will make strong Catholic schools, and strong Catholic schools will make strong parishes,” Herb said.
Diocesan officials also plan to partner with Catholic colleges and the business community on programs.
The diocese will be hiring a marketing firm to develop a unique brand for Catholic schools, Herb said.
Another part of the plan is developing standards that go beyond New York state curriculum.
Finally, the plan stresses selling the importance of faith, which Mater Christi Catholic School Principal Theresa Ewell said is an important part of the equation.
“We develop each child’s God-given gifts so they may share them in service to God and others,” she said.
Parent Julie Pasquini spoke about her decision in 2001 to send her son Nicholas, now an eighth-grader, to Mater Christi. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were fresh in her mind. When people were fleeing the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, some said their faith brought them to safety.
“I want him to have that inner strength — the ability to rely on his faith to get him through the worst and most unimaginable situation,” she said.
Nicholas spoke about how he felt after his father had been diagnosed with throat cancer in March 2009. He appreciated the chance to be able to be with his classmates during that trying time.
“Being able to pray every day openly for my dad brought me great confidence and courage,” he said.
Other than that, Nicholas said, it is a typical school with student council, basketball, art club, music club and drama club.
Tuition at the school is $4,300 annually. There is tuition assistance available, Pasquini said.
The diocese offers about 15 scholarships of $1,500 a year for three years. Herb admitted that it is a “drop in the bucket.”
Mike Piatek, who served as principal of Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons school in Schenectady from 2007 to 2009, said these reforms had been suggested by school administrators and should have been implemented years ago by the diocese. The schools are receiving little support, he said.
“The diocese is not providing any additional funding. They’re not providing any additional personnel. They’re expecting the schools to do this and the schools have cut back to keep their costs down as much as possible,” he said.
During his time at the school, Piatek oversaw an unsuccessful campaign to expand the grades 6-12 school to the elementary grades.
Details about the Covenant to Educate are available on the website www.faithinourfuture.net.