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Chapter 2: Helping Students Access Catholic Schools

The most direct way for donors to ensure that more students can enjoy the advantages of a ­Catholic-school education is to lift financial burdens that block students from attending. Scholarships are a tried-and-true way of immediately aiding students and families. A survey of key Catholic-school donors conducted by The Philanthropy Roundtable showed that more than a third of all grant dollars going to Catholic schools at present are channeled into student scholarships.

Finances are not the sole obstacle, though. Sometimes a simple lack of information that scholarships are available prevents families from even considering Catholic schools. More generally, a lack of knowledge about Catholic schools, their requirements, and their wide availability can be enrollment barriers. The effort of applying, and the need for advance planning before a school year begins, excludes some children. In places, non-English speakers are in the dark about Catholic schools. Relatively simple interventions from donors can address these kinds of access issues and information gaps that can prevent families from appreciating that they have educational choices.

In some places, simple but concentrated interventions will make it possible for hundreds of the families who most need and want Catholic schools to take action. For instance, the Latino community in some cities is ripe with opportunities for donors. The sheer number of Hispanic children in poverty today—5.7 million—is larger than the number of poor African-American or white children; many of these are struggling in inferior public schools. Yet only 300,000 Hispanic children currently attend Catholic schools. A recent report of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education set a short-term goal of increasing the percentage of Hispanic children to 6 percent (from today’s 3 percent). This is an area where savvy donors could have powerful effects, working with an ethnic group that will constitute close to a third of all Americans by 2050.

Providing scholarships

A 2014 Georgetown University report found that 53 percent of Catholic parents identify tuition costs as “somewhat” or “very much” a problem when deciding whether or not to enroll their children in Catholic schools. Half of the parents who ultimately enroll their children say the same thing. Eliminating this barrier is the most direct way to help low-income students access a Catholic-school education.

“Scholarships are the simplest and most immediate way to help the most children across the board,” states Rachel Elginsmith of the BASIC Fund, a Bay Area scholarship donor. “Getting kids into good schools is of the utmost urgency and too many kids are falling through the cracks every year. We need to get children into these schools, and scholarships do that.”

The BASIC Fund provides partial-tuition scholarships so ­low-income K-8 students living in nine northern California counties can attend religious or private schools instead of a weak public school. Since its founding in 1998 the fund has supported 19,000 students at 300 local schools, half of them Catholic. In 2015 alone the BASIC Fund gave scholarships to more than 4,000 students, and the proportion using their award to attend a Catholic school had risen to three quarters.

A recent independent study of the fund’s programs concluded that the academic performance of its recipient students improves after just one year. And although the BASIC Fund serves only children in grades K-8, these scholarships apparently prepare them for success in the years beyond: Sixty-five percent of BASIC Fund alumni subsequently win scholarships to religious or private high schools, and the high-school graduation rate of BASIC beneficiaries is over 95 percent.

Families must qualify financially for a BASIC stipend, then they are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Students must re-qualify financially every year, but once a student receives a scholarship, BASIC budgets to make sure funds will be available through the eighth grade. The cost to support an average student through his or her elementary schooling is $6,000.

Major gifts by individual donors and foundations supply the cash, though the fund has recently launched an innovative new Manzanita Fund that crowdsources fundraising for tuition scholarships. Community members, alumni, and current families are asked to give small amounts if they are able, to extend the fund’s reach. Every $6,000 raised this way provides a scholarship to another child.

On the other side of the country, the Children’s Scholarship Fund also provides grants to low-income children so they can attend ­Catholic schools. Since 1998, the New York City-based CSF has provided $168 million to 26,000 children living in its home metropolis. Currently, 8,300 children are attending 211 private elementary schools with the support of a CSF scholarship. A recent study showed that 92 percent of students receiving a CSF scholarship graduate from high school on time, and 90 percent enroll in college.

CSF has established partnerships and spurred spinoffs across the country. These include CSF-New Orleans, CSF-Baltimore, CSF-Portland, the Northwest Ohio Scholarship Fund, and others. The BASIC Fund is also a partner. Including all partner cities, the Children’s Scholarship Fund has given 145,000 needy youngsters $610 million of scholarship gifts over a 16-year period.

Denver-based ACE Scholarships is one of CSF’s local affiliates. Since 2000, it has provided 15,000 K-12 scholarships worth more than $25 million to children in its city. These scholarships work: In 2011, 91 percent of ACE students graduated from high school. In 2010, ACE’s low-income students had an average ACT score of 20.3—far above the 16.1 and 16.0 averages for low-income students in Colorado and Denver respectively.

Not every state has a CSF-affiliated scholarship program, but similar programs exist in many areas, allowing donors opportunities to support poor children in Catholic and other private schools. For example, ­Cincinnati’s Catholic Inner-city Schools Education Fund provides financial support to eight elementary schools serving approximately 1,800 students in low-income neighborhoods. Because Ohio offers state-funded vouchers, two thirds of students attending CISE schools receive state help, but the Catholic schools’ operating costs are substantially higher than the voucher amount. CISE helps fill that gap with grants that cover approximately a quarter of school costs.

Cincinnati’s Catholic schools are again of a demonstrably high quality. All of CISE third-grade students are reading at grade level—an important milestone that far outpaces the national average for ­low-income children. In 2013, just 20 percent of low-income fourth graders tested proficient or higher on the NAEP reading assessment. Results outside the classroom in behavior, health, and happiness are also apparent. With accomplishments like these, CISE has been able to raise tens of millions of dollars from donors to improve Cincinnati’s Catholic schools.

In addition to its elementary-school program, CISE runs a ­donor-directed grant program that provides tuition assistance to students who want to attend local Catholic high schools. Backers like the Farmer Family Foundation, the Lester Besl Family Foundation, the Evelyn and Charles Burgoyne Foundation, and individual donors like Donald and Catharine Laden expanded this grant program from $75,000 in 2001 to more than $800,000 in 2013.

In September 2015, the Inner-city Scholarship Fund run by the ­Archdiocese of New York City announced the largest-ever U.S. gift to Catholic schooling. Christine and Stephen Schwarzman gave a record $40 million to create an endowment that will provide 2,900 children per year with scholarships. Since the Schwarzmans started contributing to scholarships in 2001, “we’ve met so many impressive young women and men,” said Christine, “who have benefited greatly from the values provided by a Catholic-school education.” The Inner-city Scholarship Fund combines contributions from New York business leaders and church donors, and provided tuition assistance to nearly 7,000 Catholic-school students in 2015, prior to the Schwarzman gift.

Direct school support, plus wider efforts

Some scholarship organizations go beyond simply providing tuition aid to students, and provide direct support to the schools themselves. The Big Shoulders Fund does this in inner-city Chicago. Over the last 25 years it has raised more than $215 million for inner-city Catholic education in that city.

The Big Shoulders Fund pays for special-education programs, buys instructional equipment, improves facilities, supports faculty, and provides operating grants to Catholic schools that serve the neediest neighborhoods of Chicago. (It also makes student-scholarship grants.) Currently, schools benefiting from the Big Shoulders Fund enroll nearly 25,000 students in 76 elementary schools and 17 high schools across Chicago, the oldest and poorest such institutions in the archdiocese. Seventy-nine percent of the beneficiary students are minority, and 62 percent live in poverty. Despite these obstacles, 87 percent of the high-school seniors graduate and continue into college education.

The Fulcrum Foundation in Seattle is another donor consortium that has helped many needy students access Catholic schools since its founding in 2002. Approximately 60 percent of Fulcrum’s annual giving takes the form of tuition assistance. “We provide $1,200 scholarships that are making a tremendous impact,” explains executive director Anthony Holter. “Now we’re working to grow our funds to move up the income ladder and into middle-class tuition assistance.”

Fulcrum doesn’t just fuel the existing schools, though; it works hard to make them better. The foundation has created an incentive program that requires participating schools to adopt practices likely to improve student-learning levels. “We’ve moved from only grantmaking to investing in human-capital development and insisting on best business practices and management. We realized we needed to invest more resources into excellence.” Fulcrum now pays for things like improved management, better marketing, and an Office of Catholic Schools headquarters.

Other philanthropists have begun thinking differently about ­providing scholarships to students. Donor John Hazeltine has suggested imitating Kiva.org, a nonprofit that fights developing-world poverty by linking millions of small donors to millions of small borrowers. Kiva ­provides potential recipients a place to tell their stories and ask for loans to grow businesses, go to school, buy clean cooking fuel, and more. Donors who read these stories can make a loan to the borrower of their choice. On-the-ground “field partners” (local organizations within the communities where the loans are being used) vet borrowers, disburse the loans, and provide updates to lenders as the borrowers expend and eventually repay their loans.

Hazeltine’s idea is to apply the human-interest aspects and efficient bundling mechanisms of Kiva and other crowdfunding platforms to Catholic-school scholarships. Involving lots of small givers could yield sharp increases in scholarship funding. The concept hit Hazeltine out of personal experience: “We gave our first multiyear tuition assistance pledge to benefit a K-8 student who lost his dad to a heart attack. The student was attending the same school as our children, and we knew the boy, his potential, and the circumstances of his family. We remained anonymous. Later a pastor asked us privately to provide tuition aid to other identified individuals based on their specific narratives.”

Donors who provide scholarships to students can strongly influence individual lives. That has been demonstrated many times, to the thrill of givers.

There are aspects of this that would need to be solved before it could be launched. For instance, can compelling narratives be produced without revealing personal information about students in undesired ways? But tech-enabled matching systems like Uber, Airbnb, and numerous ­crowdfunding websites have shown that problems like these can be solved, involving wide circles of population in cooperative efforts, once kinks are worked out. There is no question about whether donors who provide scholarships to students can strongly influence individual lives. That has been demonstrated many times, to the thrill of givers. ­Crowdfunding might fit perfectly with Catholic-school scholarships, bringing satisfactions to thousands of small donors.

Another “different” approach through which philanthropists can help bring Catholic education to families hungry for better options is through structural change. Darla Romfo, director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, suggests this should include work like “educating interest groups about the broader importance of parental choice. It involves building and protecting tax credits, vouchers, and other vehicles in each state. It requires protecting nonprofit schools that don’t receive taxpayer support, which will stay alive and flourish in the marketplace of education only with the long-term support of committed philanthropists.”

“As I look at all of the places where parental choice has expanded since CSF was founded in 1998, at least ten of the additional programs were championed by CSF supporters. We will never overestimate the power of helping one child reach his or her full potential through a scholarship. But we must also work for the day when every child will have truly good educational options.” (Chapter 5 is all about ways donors can push for a friendlier environment for school choice.)

These goals often overlap and reinforce each other. For instance, funding scholarships can help schools stabilize enrollment, thus preserving a school or even a whole group of schools. That allows managers to redirect attention to bigger subjects like governance, operational efficiency, curriculum, and transparency. Then supporters can put new emphasis on marketing, advocating for fairer public policies, and other big-picture work. At that point, creating new schools, or expanding existing schools, becomes practical.

“Scholarships offer great satisfaction,” notes leading Catholic-schools donor and venture capitalist B. J. Cassin. “But if you’re able to invest a dollar in the startup of a new school, and have other foundations add more, you’ve amplified your investments.” Thus scholarships can be both an immediate boon to families, and philanthropists’ gateway into making wider waves.

Getting children off of waiting lists

Another way donors can support students in accessing Catholic schools is by letting parents know such schools are an option. The best charter schools have large and growing waiting lists of students who would like to attend—over a thousand individuals at some schools. More than a million students were waiting in a queue in 2013 to get into a charter school that lacked room for them. Yet desks sometimes sit empty in nearby high-quality Catholic schools. Some parents feel they cannot afford the Catholic alternative (which, as we have seen, is often untrue thanks to scholarships, though this is not adequately appreciated). Other parents, however, are simply unaware that Catholic schools are an option for their families. Donors have a huge opportunity to bridge this gap.

Organizations like Families Empowered in Houston help families on charter-school waitlists learn about and access other high-quality school options, including Catholic schools. Families Empowered provides information about schools in various neighborhoods, details of enrollment, and more. The organization uses phone calls, e-mail, social media, and choice fairs to communicate with families about their other charter, district, magnet, Catholic, and independent school options.

When families apply to either KIPP or YES Prep charter schools in Houston—both of which are high quality but heavily over-subscribed networks—they can check a box to have their information shared with Families Empowered. If the family ends up on a KIPP or YES Prep waitlist, Families Empowered contacts them and provides information about other available options. Parents can also contact Families Empowered directly if they are seeking information about additional school options.

Families Empowered has worked with the Houston Catholic ­Archdiocese from the beginning, publicizing local Catholic schools and scholarship opportunities. “This is a win-win for everyone,” explains FE director Colleen Dippel. “Charters can’t serve all the kids on their waitlists, but they still want them to be successful. We’re committed to supporting Catholic schools because we need them to be a viable option for parents. There’s huge potential to close the gap if all the waitlisted kids get into other good schools. Making Catholic schools a viable option for families further accelerates the flywheel of choice.”

In a system of choice, easily accessible information is crucial. Yet there is often less about local Catholic-school performance in public circulation than would be desirable.

This year, Families Empowered piloted an “open-seat campaign.” School leaders identify the number of open seats in their schools, Families Empowered reaches out to the families in their database, simultaneously sending schools a spreadsheet containing contact information for prospective students. The schools follow up with these families directly.

Families Empowered plans to expand this effort to include additional Catholic schools next year. A local donor has funded this work, allowing Families Empowered to play matchmaker between families in need and Catholic schools. The schools that receive these lists of interested families are required to have the infrastructure to manage increased inquiries and enrollments. This means designating staff to answer phones, respond to questions, get back to parents, walk families through the application process, take them on campus tours, and ultimately serve them as enrolled customers.

Many Catholic schools are weak when it comes to advertising and explaining themselves. In a system of choice, easily accessible information is crucial, yet there is often less easy public circulation on the programs, performance, and staffing of Catholic schools than would be desirable. Overworked principals, uneasiness with marketing, timidity, or simple inertia can reduce the transparency of Catholic schools. Fixing this can be a valuable new avenue for donors.

In most states, Catholic schools don’t administer the same ­student-achievement assessments as public schools, making comparisons a challenge. Catholic schools should at least develop their own easily tracked measures of school-performance. Donors could encourage and help Catholic educators establish consistent industry standards like a common school-performance report card. This should include a full range of important outcome indicators: achievement levels, graduation rates, AP participation, and so forth, as well as parent, teacher, and student satisfaction surveys, measures of school culture and mission effectiveness, cost data, extracurricular participation rates, elements related to Catholic identity, such as Mass attendance and volunteer hours, and evidence on student character and leadership.

Philanthropists could make adherence to these standards a condition of grants. Industry standards in other areas might also make sense. Colleen ­Dippel of Families Empowered notes that the Archdiocese of Galveston lacks a centralized enrollment system for all of its schools. This means that the superintendent has no way of knowing or projecting school population patterns, or of targeting outreach for specific schools or grade levels. Internal planning and resource allocation is consequently challenging. Donors could help Catholic schools standardize management and business systems, and invest in new technology or software that makes crucial information easy to use in personnel, marketing, and resource-allocation decisions.

Once again we are reminded: For a system of choice to work well, it needs more than just scholarships. Do families know what schools are available? Which have open seats? Is there information available on each school’s mission and performance? Is it easy for families to apply to schools? Do school networks have systems for managing vital ­information? Donors will be crucial in all of these areas, and can have very large effects if they will become involved.

Building citywide common enrollment systems

In cities like Houston, where school enrollment is decentralized and individual schools have different application processes and deadlines, organizations like Families Empowered are valuable resources for families. In other places, school enrollment has been standardized through a shared system that allows families to apply to a range of schools through one portal. The most advanced public-school systems include a common submission date across all participating schools: one form that allows families to apply to all of their preferred schools and rank their choices, a common algorithm that matches students with schools, and an appeals process for families dissatisfied with their school assignment.

Unfortunately these unified platforms are still the exception, and those that exist usually meld only conventional public schools and charter schools. Leadership and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has recently pulled several cities with lots of charters into “Collaboration Compacts.” These include efforts to standardize school calendars and ultimately unify enrollment mechanisms so parents can place children in charters and district-run schools from one place. In Philadelphia and Boston the Gates Compacts have even folded the archdiocese Catholic schools into the collaboration, making it a three-sector effort, with discussion of common enrollment calendars being one of the topics.

The OneApp system in New Orleans, bankrolled in part by the Walton Family Foundation, includes private and religious schools. The state of Louisiana operates a private-school voucher program through which students can receive scholarships to attend Catholic schools and private schools. Families in New Orleans can use OneApp to choose from traditional district, charter, religious, or private schools all in the same application.

This common enrollment system is part of a larger effort to make the New Orleans schools neutral about what type of learning environment parents select. Michael Stone of New Schools for New Orleans reports that “Right now, our unified enrollment system includes almost every public school in the city, as well as our private and parochial scholarship schools. Next year, the enrollment program will expand to include any pre-K program in the city that uses public funds—public, private, or religious. We’re moving toward a ‘one-sector’ approach in other ways as well. The Urban League of Greater New Orleans, for instance, publishes a high-school guide that provides information on public, private, and parochial high schools across New Orleans.”

Adam Hawf, former assistant superintendent at the Louisiana ­Department of Education, explains that the inclusion of religious and private schools in OneApp “gave them shelf space in a mainstream system, and allowed parents to access the full range of options in a format that allows for true comparability across schools. It’s been really good for schools and for families.”

Currently 29 states and the District of Columbia have some type of private-school choice program in place (those programs are discussed later in this book). Very few of these have a common enrollment system that includes Catholic and other private schools, however. A common enrollment system could ease burdens on families, and serve as a “market-enabler” that helps make parental exercise of school choice real rather than just a theoretical option. It would clarify the performance of different schools, allow easy comparisons, and force all schools to compete for students. Paying for creation of a common enrollment system in your city could thus be a very strategic philanthropic investment.

Welcoming Hispanics into Catholic schools

More than a decade ago when the American Catholic bishops wrote Renewing Our Commitment, they vowed to “serve the increasing ­Hispanic/Latino population…. Catholic parishes and schools must reflect this reality and reach out to welcome Hispanics.” The U.S. Hispanic population rose to 55 million in 2015, six times the level of 1970. While its growth rate has recently slowed, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the ­Hispanic population may reach 129 million by 2060.

Hispanics make up 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, yet only 3 percent of school-aged Latino children are enrolled in Catholic schools.

Hispanics are already the largest minority group in the United States. Fully one quarter of U.S. elementary-age children are Hispanic today; in some southern and western states the figure is close to half. Over the next generation the fraction nationwide will rise to one third.

Among Latino adults, 55 percent identify themselves as Catholic. Hispanics make up approximately 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, and a much higher percentage of parent-age Catholics. Yet only 3 percent of school-aged Latino children are enrolled in Catholic schools.

There are a variety of explanations for this. Many Hispanic immigrants had no tradition of Catholic schools in their home countries. Affordability is a barrier, both for families and for churches sponsoring schools. A 2009 report by the Alliance for Catholic Education found that cost was the number one issue for Hispanic families that did not send their children to Catholic school. A Boston College study found that parishes where 75 percent or more of mass attendees are Hispanic collect less than half the revenue of parishes where 75 percent or more are non-Hispanic.

However, ACE research suggests that income accounts for only about one third of the discrepancy between Hispanic and non-Hispanic use of Catholic schools. Culture gaps keep many Hispanic families from seeking out parochial schools—Spanish language is a particular barrier. Though “our schools for years and years served immigrants,” says the Reverend Joe Corpora of ACE, “we’ve never reinvented them to serve today’s immigrants.”

“Everyone—bishops, superintendents, pastors, principals, school boards, parents—is interested in this initiative of enrolling more Latino children in our Catholic schools,” says Corpora. “The entire approach to recruiting and welcoming Hispanic families and children is different from how one would recruit non-Hispanic children.”

Corpora has developed a list of 20 simple things Catholic leaders can do to help make their schools more hospitable to Latino families. These include learning basic Spanish phrases, advertising in Spanish, ­spotlighting culturally relevant religious imagery (e.g. Our Lady of Guadalupe), teaching the Mass in Spanish, including Latino families on school advisory councils, inviting Spanish-speaking priests to visit the school, even putting a “Bienvenidos” (Welcome) sign by the front door. He recommends that donors interested in being helpful fund a “field consultant” for schools, or an entire diocese. “Thirteen dioceses have done this, and all are increasing enrollment. The costs of hiring someone are quickly recovered if even a handful of new students enrolled.”

In addition to generating less income, there are data indicating that heavily Hispanic parishes are less likely to take responsibility for a local Catholic school. Only 34 percent of parishes where half or more of members are Hispanic take responsibility for a school, compared to 60 percent of parishes where less than a quarter of the population is ­Hispanic. Some of the dioceses with the lowest ratio of Catholic-school students are cities with heavy Hispanic populations—like Brownsville, Fresno, El Paso, San Bernardino, Laredo, Pueblo, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

In 2008, Notre Dame president John Jenkins commissioned a task force to investigate ways of increasing the access of Hispanic families to Catholic schools. The task force analyzed four major areas: school environment, marketing, finance, and school leadership. Its 2009 report, To Nurture the Soul of a Nation, recommends very practical steps: asking priests in heavily Hispanic parishes to emphasize Catholic education, encouraging families to seek more information on Catholic schools, and having schools identify Spanish-speaking liaisons to support the families who do reach out.

Informed by these findings, the Alliance for Catholic Education launched a “Catholic-school advantage campaign” designed to both ­promote the value of Catholic schools within the Latino community and to help existing Catholic schools respond to the needs of Latino families. In 2014, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, urged his fellow bishops to actively recruit Hispanic families into schools. “If efforts are not made to reach out to them, they won’t think it’s a viable option,” he explained.
Donors can support this process in a number of ways.

  • Support Spanish language outreach Donors can pay for targeted marketing, help school leaders translate documents into Spanish, make sure that volunteers are available to support families in ­understanding and accessing schools, and pay for Spanish-speaking staff.
  • Fund cultural training and bilingual curricula More broadly, professional development for teachers and addition of bilingual instructional capacity may be needed.
  • Adjust funding mechanisms If Hispanic families are to be attracted, schools need help in maximizing tuition subsidies without bankrupting the institution. This may require increased scholarships, creation of endowments, better planning for multiyear tuition subsidies, and for extending scholarships to siblings of enrolled children.
  • Create more schools If parishes serving Latino families don’t operate Catholic schools, marketing is useless. Donors should consider working with dioceses, pastors, and religious orders to start new schools where they are needed. (Chapter 3 focuses on new school models.)
  • Provide leaders with resources Principals and superintendents at notoriously lean Catholic schools will need extra time, staff assistance, and money if they are to add aggressive student recruitment and family outreach to existing responsibilities.
  • Advocate for school choice Donors can press political leaders to start or expand school-choice programs offering publicly funded scholarships, vouchers, tax credits, or savings accounts, particularly in states with large Hispanic populations. Where such options already exist, donors can help Hispanic families enter and navigate these programs. (Advocacy is discussed more generally in Chapter 5.)
  • Underwrite a part-time liaison ACE recommends starting a “­Madrinas Program.” Madrinas are trusted Latina women who have their children in Catholic schools; they serve as a point of contact and a source of help for Hispanic families. Madrinas can serve as translators, help fill out applications, and keep families informed about school issues. According to Father Corpora, a Madrina can be a low-dollar, high-impact investment: “Donors could help fund a Madrina, which in many cases is just a stipend of $500 or so.”

Efforts have been launched in recent years to help donors fund measures like those listed above. Three broad initiatives illustrate some of the possibilities. The first is the Hispanic Recruitment Initiative begun in 2008 by the Catholic Schools Foundation of Boston. Made possible through a gift by the Birmingham Foundation, the HRI helps area schools identify barriers to increasing Latino enrollment and then address them.

The School Pastors’ Institute was started in 2011 to train pastors of Catholic schools across the country. It offers four-day conferences on the campus of the University of Notre Dame with workshops on topics like Catholic culture and identity, and financial management and ­advancement. And it has made topics like welcoming of Latino ­children and families part of its basic curriculum. Since its start, more than 380 pastors have participated.

The Latino Enrollment Institute, created in 2012, assists ­Catholic schools with open seats and substantial numbers of Latino families in the surrounding area in attracting Hispanic students. Principals and select faculty leaders get trained in four-day summer programs on Notre Dame’s campus. Leaders from 80 schools participated in the organization’s first couple of years, resulting in documented increases in Hispanic enrollment at nearly all of them.

Los Angeles donors pay for openness

Joe Womac of the Specialty Family Foundation and Sister ­Rosemarie Nassif of the Conrad Hilton ­Foundation invited Los Angeles donors to come together for an open conversation about successes and challenges in working with ­Catholic schools. Representatives from 25 area philanthropies showed up. By the close of the meeting, participants had identified two top issues they thought they could better solve together than alone: data transparency and governance.

Choosing to focus on data transparency first—a potentially less controversial topic than governance—the leaders of the collaborative approached school leaders and the Office of ­Catholic Schools to develop a shared definition of “transparency.” One of the biggest lessons here, explains Sister Rosemarie, was “realizing that ‘transparency’ meant different things to each of us…. The ‘aha’ moment came when we defined it the same way.”

Once a common definition of the things that every school should make public had been crafted, the donors’ collaborative hired an outside consultant to work with the Office of Catholic Schools to create an academic report card or “snapshot” of each Catholic school’s progress. The snapshot covers performance in three areas: faith, academics, and stewardship. Each area has a set of measurable indicators. For example, the faith category lists the percent of teachers who are certified in Christian instruction. Academic assessment includes student progress on standardized assessments administered ­throughout the year.

Funders in the collaborative funded the development of these report cards. Schools in turn agreed to provide all necessary information. All parties agreed this format provides much-needed understanding and openness, though at present the findings are only used narrowly—one of the compromises made during negotiations is that this report-card data is solely for schools and funders. School leaders may choose to share it with parents or other stakeholders, but there is no requirement that they do so. Down the road, that extra level of information sharing should be encouraged by donors.

One of the major improvements in public schooling over the past two decades has been the publication of comparable student-achievement data and other important information on the functioning of individual schools. These report cards have enlightened parents and policymakers and helped spur much needed change. Report-card systems for Catholic schools could prove similarly useful in encouraging excellence and accountability.

Creation of the Los Angeles report card cost less than $100,000 in total, a remarkably small ­investment for a treasure-trove of information. Donors had been frustrated for years by the lack of data, and many had tried individually to get pieces of the puzzle. But it wasn’t until they made their request in combination that they were able to coalesce around a clear goal and convince the schools to develop a solution. The Los ­Angeles Donors Collaborative is a terrific example of the power of philanthropists to bring about important change at a modest cost. With the right leadership, this kind of joint effort should take place in many other cities, and be expanded to shine even greater light, for an even wider circle of interested parties, on educational results, needs, and trends over time.

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