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Chapter 3: Investing in Promising New Models

There is a considerable consensus today that the traditional Catholic school run by the local church is unsustainable in many places. “Putting all power with the pastor is great when the pastor is amazing and has the desire and capacity to be intricately involved in the day-to-day operations of the school,” says Joe Womac of the Specialty Family Foundation in Los Angeles. “Unfortunately, this parish model no longer reflects reality, with many pastors being stretched too thin and lacking the capacity to be meaningfully involved in running a school.” What’s needed, he says, are new governance models. Investor and donor Tony de Nicola agrees that without changes in the way schools are managed “we’ll continue to face the same challenges.”

When The Philanthropy Roundtable asked Catholic-school donors about barriers to the sector’s growth, 69 percent named “diocesan bureaucracy.” The experience of the GHR Foundation of Minnesota will be familiar to many donors. “The GHR Foundation had been funding Catholic schools for a number of years and putting in a lot of money,” explains Meg Gehlen Nodzon. This included a $1 million grant to the local diocese for scholarships and other purposes. Nevertheless, “schools were still financially unstable and ran the gamut, academically, from highly effective to questionable.”

Changing times require a new approach to organizing Catholic education, argues John Eriksen, former superintendent of schools for the diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. “Dioceses feel that in order to control their schools they need to manage all schools. That’s a mistake. I would much rather see dioceses bid out the management of these schools to other operators.”

At its core, governance is about who has power. The ultimate authority over a Catholic school usually resides with the local bishop. His degree of involvement, however, ranges widely.

Bishops are allowed to delegate responsibilities of running schools, and often do. Many regions have a secretary of education, vicar general, or superintendent of local Catholic schools. The commonest arrangement has been for priests to delegate operational responsibilities to school principals. The only responsibilities that cannot be delegated relate to the religious and moral teachings of the school.

Changing the way Catholic schools are organized, operated, and governed means overturning more than a century’s worth of practice. “There are certain things you have to break to fix the system: old mindsets, old staffing models, old ways of governing schools, old ways of being held accountable,” says Casey Carter of Philadelphia’s Faith in the Future. The next generation of healthy schools “is going to look very different from schools and approaches of the past.”

Understandably, many priests and bishops are hesitant about altering longstanding customs and formulas. But resistance seems to be softening. Unprecedented new arrangements for governing the Catholic schools that have been put into place in prominent locations like New York City and Philadelphia are speeding the pace of change.

Since 2009, Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education has hosted a series of meetings among bishops to discuss the revitalization of ­Catholic K-12 schooling. The resulting conversations have helped open minds about system updates. ACE’s John Schoenig sees “growing receptivity among bishops to new models. The paradigm has shifted fundamentally in these six years.”

Changing the way Catholic schools are governed means overturning more than a century’s worth of practice.

The question is no longer whether Catholic schools should be run differently; it’s about how. “There’s strong understanding about the concept of alternative governance,” says Schoenig. “Now the bishops are considering details and degree. There are different ways we can do this, different approaches to authority, different organizational structures. We’re discussing all of the possibilities.”

The explorations have extended far beyond talk—new approaches are now being tested, honed, and expanded from coast to coast. And bishops aren’t the only ones in these conversations. Donors, school administrators, teachers, lay leaders, and many others are involved. By insisting on updated structures and helping to pay for them, donors can have a powerful influence on this crucial transition.

Fostering change within traditional governance structures

“I want to work within the system as an agent for positive change collaborating with the bishops and their staffs,” says philanthropist Tony de Nicola. “This is what I do with companies I own through private equity. I work with CEOs to make them better.”

Donors who are in that camp may want to encourage school administrators to share information and resources in loose consortia. This step appeals to some because it is less disruptive than the governing change we’ll consider in the next section. Yet it still offers chances to improve management and sustainability by getting schools to cooperate.

Consortia vary. Some support a small number of schools in a small geographic space—like the Consortium of Catholic Academies, a ­nonprofit created to provide administrative, curricular, and financial ­support to four schools in Washington, D.C., that collectively educate about 800 students every year. It dates to 2007 when plans were announced to convert seven of D.C.’s 14 Catholic schools into charter schools (see the “Catholic-school conversions” section later in this chapter for more on this topic). Four of the remaining schools were reorganized under the CCA umbrella.

Other consortia link schools across geographic boundaries. For example, the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium shares seven activities—including procurement, leadership development, and joint advocacy—among members stretching from D.C. to Baltimore to Wilmington, Delaware. The Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium was formed in 2007 by the deans of the five Catholic universities in Milwaukee and supported by a startup donation from the Stollenwerk Family Foundation. Its mission is to support and revitalize the Catholic schools in that city by marshaling academic resources and expertise from the adjoining Catholic colleges.

Donor John Stollenwerk, former owner of Allen Edmonds Shoes, explains the program’s genesis: “Cardinal Dolan [then Archbishop of Milwaukee] and I came up with idea of putting the five Catholic colleges and their incredible resources to use for the benefit of Catholic schools. Each college puts some money into it, according to size, and then they charge a small fee for the program. It wasn’t hard to get the colleges involved. They saw the need, and also an opportunity to work with teachers pursuing post-graduate degree programs.”

The Milwaukee consortium behaves much like a consulting firm. It helps develop teacher and principal skills, bolsters fundraising, marketing, and public relations, and strengthens management. It also provides schools with expertise and resources when new needs pop up—like vocational skills training, or anti-bullying instruction. The consortium holds large workshops, sponsors intimate conversations, and consults on site.

The work of the Catholic School Consortium in Los Angeles has been driven almost entirely by philanthropy. In 2008 the Specialty ­Family Foundation invited 13 schools to join together to strengthen their development, marketing, and outreach activities. Nine schools took up the offer. Each received a three-year grant of $250,000 to hire a staff member to lead development, and to meet monthly with his or her peers from the other schools to share ideas and challenges.

The consortium now unites two dozen schools, and the scope of their work has expanded. For example, nine of the member schools recently joined forces to hire an accounting firm to handle all of their books. Three schools partnered with a local university to align their teacher professional development. The goal of the program is to build the competence of schools to the point where no ongoing support from Specialty is needed, and where “a sustainable, vibrant, rigorous Catholic elementary school will be available to every Los Angeles area child who seeks to attend regardless of ability to pay.”

The consortium, which spun itself into an independent 501(c)(3) in 2014, is making a difference for many of its participants. Two schools “are absolutely night and day different over a five-to-seven year period,” reports Joe Womac of Specialty. “At least three additional campuses were good schools that have become great, maintaining both excellence and financial health. These schools prove it can be done in the inner-city.”

Fostering change by transforming governance

A new generation of school networks—sometimes called “private-school management organizations”—has gained attention for leading groups of Catholic schools toward greater success. These organizations offer the benefits of the consortia just discussed—like knowledge trading and shared services—but go much further to create common operating practices built on shared leadership and mission. Unlike consortia, creating these managed networks of schools requires an all-new kind of governance and control.

Every network has a central office that standardizes budgeting, hiring, fundraising, procurement, curriculum, and building acquisition and management. This frees up principals to focus on instruction, and religious leaders to focus on spiritual and moral guidance. This arrangement has in several instances produced chains of schools that are financially sustainable and academically excellent.

The question is no longer whether Catholic schools should be run differently; it’s about how.

To make this new structure work, a diocese must be willing to devolve most school governing authority to the private school management organization. Though still quite new, PSMOs are already diversifying into different types. In some cases a bishop grants operating and ­management authority over a set of schools to a board that functions as the governing body. In other cases operating and management authority is granted to a foundation or other external entity. In all cases the new entity has limits on its jurisdiction, but it looks a lot like the headquarters of a charter-school chain that sets consistent standards across campuses.

These new management organizations have exciting potential to bring not only good performance but also sustained expansion to Catholic schooling—something the old Catholic-school structure has found almost impossible for generations. Where the goal is to bring high-quality Catholic schooling to new students, specially managed networks of schools are likely to be the most effective tool. If donors will strengthen and improve them, these networks have potential to become one of this era’s major contributions to Catholic education, as demonstrated by the examples that follow.

Jubilee Schools

Between 1999 and 2004, donors helped the Diocese of Memphis reopen several closed Catholic schools. A massive philanthropic gift provided both operational funds and an endowment. The so-called “Jubilee” schools now serve more than 1,200 low-income students in Memphis’ ­inner-city neighborhoods.

In 2010, former charter-school leader David Hill was named director of academic operations. He instituted changes across the network—­extending the school day, strengthening school culture, putting more emphasis on attracting and retaining high-quality teachers and principals. This seems to be paying dividends in academic performance.

Financial challenges, however, continue. The schools serve the most impoverished families in the region, without public funds, and the ­housing-foreclosure recession forced the network to dip into its endowment. (Many donors have found endowments to be ephemeral solutions that don’t last.) In October 2014, Bishop Terry Steib announced that the nine Jubilee Schools would spin off from the diocese as the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, with Hill as president. It is intended that the network’s new independence will make fundraising easier.

Hill is now in charge of all aspects of the schools, including academics, business, and fundraising. He reports to overseeing directors. “We now have a new board that governs these schools exclusively,” he notes, and have “been given broad latitude and autonomy to make decisions.” He intends to “increase the work of the network while reducing the operational demands on principals. We wanted to free them to focus more on being academic leaders.”

The first major change since becoming an independent network has been a new school calendar, and correlated changes in teacher and principal compensation. Starting with the 2015-2016 school year, the Jubilee Schools will operate on a 200-day, year-round calendar.

Hill stresses that formation of the independent Jubilee Schools ­Network will in no way alter the schools’ Catholic foundation: “There seems to be an underlying fear that this change means our schools are becoming charter schools. That is not the case. Our schools will not lose their Catholic identities through this transition. If anything it’s going to strengthen our Catholicity,” he told us in an interview.

Catholic Partnership Schools

In 2005 there were just five Catholic elementary schools left in ­inner-city Camden, New Jersey, and three of them were scheduled to close. But donor Christine Healey convinced the bishop to put off the closures and give her a chance to manage the vulnerable schools. The two other remaining elementary schools also signed on. The Healey Education Foundation and the diocese set up a board of limited jurisdiction that would acquire all decision-making power regarding the management of the schools, while leaving the bishop authority over the religious doctrine of the schools and a few other matters. The board incorporated its own 501(c)(3) in 2010 known as Catholic Partnership Schools.

After researching the dilemma, Healey explains, she determined that a conventional approach wouldn’t work. The bolder network model was essential. “Before we started, I researched about 40 consortium models of Catholic schools across the country. Most were run within dioceses and they’d simply clustered schools that were struggling in urban settings. I analyzed those, and many weren’t effective. Pulling a group of failing enterprises together for economies of scale in things like purchasing isn’t enough. Most of these clusters continued to be managed within dioceses that don’t have the skills and resources to make tough decisions and find and manage the right talent. Urban Catholic schools need different operating systems and structures to be successful.”

Under the Camden governing arrangement, local priests are no longer responsible for many of the operational aspects of the school, including payroll, finances, facilities, fundraising, academics, and curriculum. Partnership director Sister Karen Dietrich meets with all five principals on a monthly basis to establish common high standards and consistent businesslike practices. One welcome result of the Partnership is the sense of community that the principals now feel. The Camden diocese sprawls, and the needs of its suburban school principals are quite different from those of the principals of its inner-city schools.

While unifying many practices, the Partnership has given each of the five schools latitude to maintain cultural distinctions. “The neighborhoods of these schools are unique, and most of the schools have been in place since the 1920s,” explains Sister Dietrich. “They are anchors for their communities and significant to the neighborhood. We want to honor their history and ensure the schools maintain their community character.”

The Partnership relies almost entirely on private support. Donors include the Healey foundation, regional philanthropies, and individuals. The national Children’s Scholarship Fund has a strong long-time alliance with the Partnership, providing an annual matching grant that helps several hundred boys and girls attend one of its five schools.

Cristo Rey

In 2000, venture capitalist and Catholic-school champion B. J. Cassin created a foundation to help replicate successful schools. He provided $12 million to create a spinoff of the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a ­Chicago innovation with an unusual structure and impressive results. When its creators first opened the high school in 1996 to an overwhelmingly low-income Hispanic population, they faced the same vexing problem that haunts many Catholic schools: how to provide a ­high-quality education, without any public funds, to a low-income community that cannot afford to pay much tuition. Their solution was a corporate work-study program. At the original campus, and at each new spinoff, students are required to work five days each month in an ­entry-level job through the school’s corporate work study program.

Four-student teams share a single full-time job. Each member works one full day per week in the position; every fourth week a team member puts in two days. Placements include entry-level office jobs at hospitals, universities, law firms, and private businesses.

Students’ earned income goes directly to the school to help cover the costs of a Cristo Rey education. Typically businesses pay between $20,000 to $30,000 for each full-time job filled by a student team. That covers 40-60 percent of each student’s school costs. Through their jobs, students are thus the biggest donors to Cristo Rey.

But the work-study program isn’t just about money. It also gives low-income students real-life work experience in different kinds of office work, generally at top corporations and major businesses. This demystifies professional occupations for students who have often had little exposure to them, builds confidence, and imparts practical understanding and inspiration for further education.

Jane Genster, the president of the Cristo Rey Network, explains that work-study “was originally conceived as only a funding device. We quickly learned, however, that the work experience also contributes powerfully to our students’ education, formation, and preparation for college and careers. They learn technological competence, attention to detail and directions, thorough research and clear writing, organization and presentation skills, and overall time management.”

In recent years, Cristo Rey has captured national attention for its great success and rapid expansion. Educational experts have praised the ability of work-study programs to produce skills like teamwork, grit, and perseverance. In her 2014 book Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools Are Transforming Urban Education, journalist Megan Sweas admires the school network’s entire approach. She praises Cristo Rey’s rigorous coursework, and its well-developed character education, in addition to the positive influence of the work-study program.

Fully 96 percent of Cristo Rey’s students are minorities, and their average family income is $34,000. Yet in recent years almost every single Cristo Rey graduate has been admitted to a two- or four-year college. Since 2009, Cristo Rey has partnered with 46 colleges and universities to offer counseling, guidance, and significant financial-aid packages that help its graduates succeed on campus. Cristo Rey’s college graduation rate is currently double the level of students from similar backgrounds who attend other high schools.

Fully 96 percent of Cristo Rey’s students are minorities, and their average family income is $34,000. Yet 100 percent were accepted to a two- or four-year college.

In addition to its dramatic impact on student lives, Cristo Rey is transforming neighborhoods. And it is helping illuminate national discussions on education reform. Cristo Rey officials seek to use its success to show what Catholic schooling can offer to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Cristo Rey has expanded rapidly from its initial school to 30 schools in 19 states plus D.C. As this is written, six additional schools are in development in Baton Rouge, Dallas, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Tampa. Eleven more locations across the country have been targeted, with schools to open as philanthropic support allows. And as Genster puts it, “experience tells us that the integration of our rigorous college-prep academic curriculum with our distinctive work-study program uniquely equips our students for success in their post graduate lives.”

Faith in the Future

Since 2009, a number of new networks of Catholic schools have launched. The Faith in the Future Foundation is one. It emerged in 2012 as an independent nonprofit to which the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ceded operational and financial responsibility for 17 high schools and four special-ed schools.

“Catholic schools are the best platform to create low-cost, ­high-quality education that forms productive citizens of real character,” says ­foundation CEO Casey Carter. “What we need to do is create a business model for these schools to thrive.” The change of management control was crucial. “You have to change the governance structure first in order to create a new operating and business model,” says Carter.

Under the initial five-year agreement, the archdiocese Office for Catholic Education that previously oversaw the schools became a division of the foundation and reports directly to the CEO. It remains responsible for curriculum and standards, guides academic and spiritual development of the students, and manages professional development of teachers. Business systems, fundraising, marketing, capital improvements, and expansion are the foundation’s responsibility.

The Office of Catholic Education also continues to oversee the more than 100 Catholic schools throughout greater Philadelphia that continue to be owned and operated by parishes. While FIFF does not operate these schools directly, it provides them with ongoing support and guidance. Casey is focused on improving enrollment and modernizing enrollment systems; professionalizing fundraising; improving the quality of teachers and principals; enhancing educational and artistic programs; and deploying technology to measure, monitor, and drive improvements.

“We find economies of scale and create central services to support our schools,” explains Ed Hanway, former chairman of Cigna Insurance and founder of the Faith in the Future Foundation. The organization has agreed to cover all operational deficits of its 21 schools. The foundation will raise money for this purpose from multiple sources: regional philanthropies, individuals, alumni, and the Pennsylvania tax-credit scholarship program.

Enrollment growth will be one of main ways the foundation intends to improve the economics of their schools, and good things are already happening on this front. “This year,” said Carter in 2015, “we’re expecting population gains of at least one percent, and it is largest among freshman and sophomores.” The schools have also already increased their annual donations, thanks to improved fundraising processes. A networkwide $6 million deficit has been turned into a $1.2 million surplus.

Notre Dame ACE Academies

Since 1993 the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame has been a leader in creating new ways of supporting Catholic schools. The ACE Teaching Fellows program has trained more than 1,200 high-quality teachers to serve in under-resourced Catholic schools, and its Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program has prepared more than 230 ­principals to lead them. (Both programs are described in more detail in Chapter 4.)

In 2005, leaders at ACE recognized that Catholic colleges need to offer even more assistance to Catholic schools. “Notre Dame serves the church in the U.S.,” says Christian Dallavis of ACE. “If there’s no ­Catholic K-12 system, then there’s no Notre Dame. We need to do whatever we can to strengthen K-12. It has to be a part of our mission.”

ACE began to expand rapidly in 2006. By 2010 it offered four degree and certificate programs specifically for Catholic educators, five outreach initiatives, and five services programs—one of which is Notre Dame ACE Academies. “Through ACE Academies,” explains Dallavis, “we’re trying to demonstrate that given the right governance structure and choice policies, Catholic schools serving low-income families can sustainably provide high-quality education and faith formation.

If there’s no Catholic K-12 system, then there’s no Notre Dame.

When ACE Academies goes into any diocese, an independent board is formed and the bishop yields authority over academics, operations, and finances for some of his schools to this board and ACE. This governance model ensures that the board, local pastors, and principals have clearly delegated responsibilities, but that they work together collaboratively.

ACE choose sites carefully, looking first and foremost for willing partners. “We look at the area’s school-choice environment,” explains Dallavis, “and at church leadership to make sure they are open to change. Our first two locations we were essentially invited in. We’re not looking to antagonize or set up shop where we’re not wanted.”

ACE Academies provides support to partner schools in three main areas:

  • Catholic identity: Building a strong school culture that sees “God in all things.”
  • Growth: Helping schools with financial management, marketing, and taking advantage of tax-credit and voucher programs.
  • Teaching: Developing stronger teachers and principals.

The first three ACE Academies were established in 2010 in Tucson, Arizona, at the invitation of the local bishop. In 2012, the bishop in St. Petersburg, Florida, invited ACE to partner with two schools in the Tampa Bay area. Both sites serve students in grades pre-K through 8, and accept students who qualify for state tax-credit scholarships. Combined, these five schools serve about 1,250 students.

The affiliation with Notre Dame is a major benefit. “We can bring some things to the schools that a standalone nonprofit couldn’t,” said Dallavis. “Our schools in Tucson now have Notre Dame’s name plastered on their sides, and the city has a core of older Notre Dame alumni. So we have 70-year-old men who play golf in the morning and then spend the rest of the afternoon tutoring kids. Retired businessmen and engineers sit in classrooms with our ACE kids on a side of town they otherwise never would have gone to.”

Since becoming an ACE Academy in 2010, St. John the ­Evangelist School in Tucson has experienced 91 percent enrollment growth. In 2010 its third-grade class scored in the 17th percentile nationally in math. Three years later, as fifth graders, these same children were in the 52nd percentile, surpassing the national average.

Notre Dame is expanding to new sites. In April of 2015, the university announced creation of four new ACE Academies in Orlando, Kissimmee, and Daytona Beach, Florida. “Our dream is that ACE ­Academies become the proof points for private and religious school choice that KIPP, Achievement First, and Success Academies have been for the ­charter-school movement,” says Dallavis. “We want to be what people think of when they think of successful voucher schools.”

Independence Mission Schools

Prior to 2010, St. Martin de Porres School faced challenges common to too many urban Catholic schools: declining enrollment, skyrocketing costs, growing debt, and the fear of closure. The school is located in an economically depressed neighborhood of North Philadelphia. It has served poor and minority families for over 100 years; today, 99 percent of the school’s 400 students are black and many come from families living below the poverty line. But thanks to creative and generous business leaders and philanthropists (including construction entrepreneur Jack Donnelly, chairman of the school’s board), St. Martin de Porres has rebounded. Indeed, the successful approach used to save this campus has paved the way for preservation of a whole string of threatened schools.

Back in 1980 a group of Philadelphians created Business ­Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools to help low-income children get religious education in their city. By 2014-2015 BLOCS was raising more than $10 million and granting partial scholarships to 5,500 students throughout greater Philadelphia. In 2010 the charity announced a new initiative in support of Catholic schools. Local philanthropists Gerry ­Lenfest and Michael O’Neill organized a $4 million matching grant to help seven schools create endowments that would bolster their ­long-term sustainability. Principals at the seven schools—of which St. Martin de Porres was one—agreed to raise $7 million within three years to qualify for the BLOCS bonus.

St. Martin de Porres hit its goal with the help of a funders auxiliary. Success led to agreement from the archdiocese that this charitable auxiliary, the Friends of St. Martin de Porres School, would assume leadership, operational, and financial responsibility for the high school. Philadelphia’s Bishop Timothy Senior called the agreement “a future model for the success of our inner-city Catholic schools.” Today, an 18-member board manages the school, while the archdiocese provides the curriculum.

In 2012, the archdiocese announced that it would be closing four high schools and 44 elementary schools (on the heels of 30 closures over the previous five years) due to declining enrollment and falling revenue. Schools were offered an appeals process that gave them a chance to demonstrate that they could remain open in some reorganized state, and as a result 18 elementary schools were granted reprieves. Archbishop Charles Chaput explained that “we are pleased to be working with ­Catholic community leaders who have stepped forward at a critical time.”

Some philanthropic local businessmen came together to create a nonprofit capable of running high-quality Catholic schools in the city’s neediest communities. The Independence Mission Schools organization ultimately took over operation of 15 Philadelphia Catholic schools. Their agreement with the archdiocese cedes the 15 campuses to them in perpetuity—on the condition that they continue to be operated as Catholic schools. The schools continue to receive support from the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools, but IMS has the authority to make any changes to curriculum or operations that its board deems necessary. Each school also signed onto the agreement individually, making it relatively easy, legally, to add additional schools in the future.

Closely modeled after the independent board at St. Martin de ­Porres, each IMS school now has its own advisory board. The umbrella organization provides operational support that improves academics and minimizes costs. “We’ve been able to grow enrollment in these schools in a way that just wasn’t possible before, and teachers and principals have a whole new level of resources at their disposal,” notes IMS president Anne McGoldrick. “This is only our second year but already I’m sensing better energy and morale. Our leaders and teachers have an appetite for change. People are getting excited by new approaches.”

Every single IMS student comes from a low-income family; 64 percent are African-American and 13 percent are Hispanic; 100 percent attend the school on financial aid. These students pay tuition, but private philanthropy and state tax-credit scholarships are crucial to meeting annual school costs of $4,500 per student per year.

Partnership for Inner-city Education

In 2011, the Archdiocese of New York reconfigured its ­Catholic schools from a traditional parish-based system to a regional system. Whether they had a school or not, all parishes would contribute financially to support the schools in the area. Each Catholic-school region was set up as a separate educational nonprofit chartered by the New York State ­Department of ­Education. In each region, a board of trustees that mixes church officials and laity is appointed to manage all aspects of the schools.

This spinoff allowed further, even more localized, devolutions of Catholic schools to take place in particular neighborhoods. “We can’t afford ‘business as usual’. We need to try new administrative models to address the challenges faced by Catholic education today and to ensure our schools thrive and stay strong for future generations,” said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in 2013. So at that same time, six inner-city schools in Harlem and the Bronx were placed under the management of a donor group called the ­Partnership for Inner-city Education. The archdiocese retains ownership of the school facilities and oversees the religious curriculum, but the Partnership has broad authority over most remaining aspects of school operation.

Philanthropist Russ Carson, a longtime supporter of Catholic schools and now the Partnership’s board chairman, found that giving in the form of scholarships wasn’t improving Catholic schools as he’d hoped and that he could contribute more by helping set up an independent school operator like the Partnership. “Russ wanted to start it with just a few schools to see if it could work,” says Partnership director Jill Kafka. The group studied charter-school operators “to see how they staff their central office—what they centralize, what they don’t.”

The Partnership allocated $9 million to improve buildings, buy new classroom materials, train teachers, and launch new enrichment programs for students. Once they have fully ramped up, these six schools aim to serve more than 2,000 students (the vast majority of whom come from low-income families). That growth will only happen, the leadership team understands, if student results are excellent. “The goal is to get the same results as the best charters in the neighborhood,” says Kafka. “Strong academics will raise enrollment, and full enrollment will stabilize finances.”

“We have effective control of the schools. We have the right to hire and fire the principals, the right to change the academic components of the schools. We have full responsibility for the educational product that we are now delivering,” noted Carson in a recent discussion with other donors sponsored by FADICA, a group that assists Catholic-school funders. “In return for this we’ve devoted significant dollars to fixing up the schools and adding additional programs and capabilities. At some point, we will have to step up our outside fundraising. And that will be totally dependent on our ability to demonstrate that we have materially raised the educational quality of the schools.”

The governance issue we’ve been exploring in this chapter was front and center when the negotiations took place to create the Partnership for Inner-city Education. “Our deal with the archdiocese has gone very smoothly so far,” says Carson, but “at the very beginning, the cardinal was concerned about turning over control of the schools. So we countered that by adding a clause that allows the archdiocese to terminate at any time. And the partnership can terminate at any time if we aren’t happy with the way the archdiocese is treating the schools. That’s been a very effective measure to keep both sides honest.”

Lessons from other private schools

Supporters and managers of Catholic education can also learn many useful things from the experiences of other religious and private schools. Following are three private-school operations that may offer lessons.

The Oaks Academy

The first campus of Oaks Academy was founded by a small group of neighbors who envisioned an excellent Christ-centered education for students living in inner-city Indianapolis. In 1998 the school welcomed 53 students into classrooms offering grades K-8. A second K-5 location was launched in 2011. By 2015, those two campuses served more than 600 students, and a third campus—the chain’s dedicated middle school—was opening.

Director of advancement Nathan Hand describes Oaks as “one school in three locations. We have a singular philosophy and mission across all of our locations.” This focus on a narrow, non-negotiable shared culture is common among successful school chains. The connective tissue within these networks of schools is more than a name or a common finance system, it’s also values and mission.

Bringing their education to an ever-widening circle of families is a priority for Oaks leaders, and they have a carefully developed expansion model that works much like the way evangelical Christians plant churches: “We incubate families at the original campus for a year and then send them to launch the second model,” states Hand. “These families soak up the model and become pioneers at the new campus. We also identify teachers and leaders who really get us, and ask them to move to the next campus. We want to launch the same school each time.”

The cardinal was concerned about turning over control of the schools. So we countered that by adding a clause that allows the archdiocese to terminate at any time.

This approach has been successful at transferring the school’s culture, though Hand acknowledges challenges: “The sending school had to reckon with beloved teachers leaving and being replaced by new teachers.” Donors should be mindful of this perennial challenge of replication. The only way to reliably spread culture is through people. But shifting people from one location to another comes at a price.

The Oaks Academy prides itself on its racial and socioeconomic diversity. Half of enrolled students come from low-income families, one quarter come from middle-income families, and one quarter come from higher-income families. The school maintains a roughly equal proportion of African-American and white students.

The three schools rely on a mixed funding model. Fifty percent of the network’s income comes from family-paid tuition. Philanthropy covers about 30 percent of the overall budget. And Indiana’s private-school voucher program covers about 20 percent of costs. “Everyone pays something,” remarks Hand, but discounted rates make it possible for low-income families to afford tuition.

In addition to offering a Christ-centered education in a diverse environment, academic results at The Oaks are impressive. Ninety-five percent of students pass both the math and language sections of the state assessment. Those scores place it in the top 5 percent of schools in the state.

HOPE Christian Schools

HOPE Christian Schools is a network of six Christian schools in ­Wisconsin run by a nonprofit called Educational Enterprises Inc. The first HOPE school opened in 2002. Today the network operates five schools in Milwaukee and a sixth in Racine. In 2015, school reformers in Louisiana announced a $900,000 investment to open four new HOPE Christian Schools in Baton Rouge, the first grant from their Excellence Fund to be used for non-public schools.

Educational Enterprises Inc. is unusual in that it also runs a network of charter schools in Arizona and Missouri called Eagle College Prep. “We started with the Christian schools, not charter schools,” explains EEI’s Ciji Pittman. “We think the faith element is important. It’s one of the three main gaps we believe our schools are filling—the racial achievement gap, the gap in forming character in young people, and the shortage of high-quality faith-based schools.”

Without consistent public funding for religious and private schools, however, EEI considered charter schools the next-best option. “There was a community in St. Louis that really wanted a school like HOPE, but it just wasn’t possible because the funding wasn’t there. So we opened a charter school instead.” Because the faith element is so important to EEI’s mission, all of its charter schools offer a supplemental program called Compass that provides religious-education programming to students.

In Wisconsin, which has been a national star in treating religious and private schools fairly, EEI’s HOPE Christian Schools for kindergarten through eighth-grade students have thrived. Although the children they enroll typically arrive scoring significantly below their district average on statewide math and reading tests, after attending HOPE for two years, the typical student outscores district peers in both subjects.

HOPE’s financial model depends heavily on Wisconsin’s public funding. It also counts on about $750,000 of philanthropic support whenever they launch another school. Tuition payments, state vouchers, and this initial philanthropic funding “allow us to break even in year four or five. We don’t open a new school unless it’ll be sustainable on its own ­without ongoing support,” explains Pittman.

When deciding where to expand, the availability of initial philanthropic support and of reliable state or city support for school-choice assistance are the two main elements leaders look for. Fair treatment from governments is the shakiest piece of this. Even in Wisconsin, with the nation’s oldest voucher program, political struggles can squeeze private schools that rely on the program. “We were all set to open in Racine and the budget proposal came down with huge cuts,” reports Pittman. “We were given assurances that this would be fixed, but we had to move forward with finding a facility and hiring leaders and teachers without clarity. The funding and policy are so unstable that it makes it really hard to rely on it.”

Having successfully navigated these challenges, HOPE Christian Schools opened the 2015-2016 school year offering more than 2,000 students a high-quality, faith-based education. The organization’s accomplishments offer insights for Catholic-school donors. In operating both religious schools and charter schools, it has mixed and matched strengths of each educational type. Its charter-school variant required effort to figure out what faith elements could be retained, and how. And the religious schools have learned to weather the ups and downs of public budgeting and politics that sometimes ruffle school-choice programs.


Concern over the loss of Lutheran schools in Milwaukee spurred a group of business leaders, educators, and financial backers of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod to launch LUMIN (the Lutheran Urban ­Mission Initiative) to support that city’s struggling Lutheran schools. Between 2005 and 2009, four Milwaukee schools were rescued from financial pressures. In 2012 LUMIN re-opened a shuttered campus. And in 2014 the nonprofit took over a struggling academy in the city of Racine.

“All of the schools were distressed in one form or another,” explains Richard Laabs, the group’s president. “Once we turned them around and revived them financially, then we set our sights on growth and quality.” Today, LUMIN operates six schools serving nearly 1,600 students in grades pre-K through 8.

LUMIN has a headquarters staff of about 20 employees divided into three teams. One oversees all business functions (accounting, finance, budgeting, facilities, human resources, marketing, etc.). A second manages academic aspects of the schools (curriculum, instruction, assessments, data collection, etc.). The third team orchestrates student and family services (counselors, social workers, health care, after-school, etc.).

Nearly all of LUMIN’s 1,600 students are financially eligible for ­Wisconsin’s voucher program, and like the HOPE Christian Schools, LUMIN relies heavily on the state payments. This influences its growth planning, as the network will only consider expanding into cities or states with sufficient and reliable private-school choice programs. LUMIN is currently exploring opportunities to expand into nearby Indiana—where an excellent private-school choice program exists.

“We’ve been relatively unsuccessful at raising philanthropic money,” reports Laabs. “We have about six local foundations that support us. And one large national funder has been good to us, but they changed their direction and basically backed out. The grants we’ve obtained have mostly been used to fund startup schools or significant renovation projects. In some cases, we’ve used grants to fund a new position or a new initiative until we reach the scale to build it into our operating budget. But the voucher program is our lifeline.”

To grow its network, LUMIN has expanded existing institutions as well as acquiring new schools. It has both started schools afresh and taken over existing campuses. In addition to having internal capacity, a school operator that wants to grow needs clear positive market signals, warns Laabs. “If you’re going to open a new school, you’d better identify an underserved community versus one that’s already saturated.”

Due diligence on governance changes

There are many ways that donors can improve and sustain Catholic schools. The best options will vary depending on the community, and will be dictated by a combination of factors. These include the willingness of school and church leaders to change longstanding practices, the quality of the school’s leadership, its trajectory over the latest decade, the nature of the families it has the potential to serve, the views of the families it currently serves, the possibilities of creating helpful partnerships, the cohesion of the local Catholic donor community, the presence of competing schools, the school-choice environment of the state, and so on.

In some contexts, encouraging the creation of relatively loose consortia may be enough. If more sharing of information and joint efficiency are the main things that are missing, then just bringing existing schools together to share lessons and resources, and incentivizing leaders to tinker with new approaches—as the Specialty Family Foundation did in Los Angeles—may be enough. In other circumstances, however, wholly different governance structures may be necessary before donors begin pouring money into their Catholic schools.

Because most Catholic-education donors have been loyally involved with their local schools for years, they will often already have a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of these schools. But before launching any serious intervention it may be wise to refresh one’s store of information on topics like these:

  • Past and current enrollment trends, and future projections
  • A nuanced picture of academic outcomes and how they compare to surrounding and peer institutions
  • An accurate profile of the existing teaching and principal force
  • An understanding of the schools’ philanthropic history, including key donors, successful initiatives, and failures
  • School facility needs
  • School and system-level financial status
  • Adequacy of prevailing business and marketing practices
  • A good read on the local church leadership

Once donors have a solid understanding of these important details, they should swiftly turn their attention to the mechanics of change. Transforming century-old institutions can be complicated, especially if there are not strong leaders on the other side of the table. Without enthusiasm and commitment to making a leap forward, negotiations on spinning off schools into new governance can bog down on details.

Donors must have confidence that their partners are not going to get hung up on whether the school gets to use the church parking lot. Things that matter, like what gets spent on building repairs, and the size of diocese subsidies for parishioners’ tuition, either need to be established in advance, or be rendered moot by the schools’ operational autonomy. Vital aspects of autonomy can be negotiated before donors take responsibility for their groups of schools—as was done by the Catholic Partnership in Camden, or Faith in the Future in Philadelphia, or the Partnership for Inner-city Education in New York City—or it can be grasped by creating a new entity from scratch, like in the case of the Cristo Rey schools.

It’s worth remembering that large governance changes can have large transaction costs (community resistance, friction from church or school staff, and so forth). Donors must be sure what they win is worth the effort expended. In some cases a simple memorandum of ­understanding might accomplish all that is needed, without ruffling feathers about who owns what, and who is ultimately in charge. In other instances, a thoroughgoing change of control and management may be essential if school performance and sustainability are to be dramatically improved.

Donors should consider the human element in these projects, not just what the data say. Many people interpret change, especially fundamental change, as an indictment of their previous work. Even inadequate work is sometimes associated with self-sacrificing effort. To avoid backlashes, change management that helps people understand what is happening and why it is necessary should be part of any major reform. “We have to remember that we’re dealing with people and culture and existing communities,” summarizes Anne McGoldrick of Independence Mission Schools. “We need to bring them along, not necessarily slowly but carefully, so they can embrace the change.”

Once donors have a full picture of their local school landscape and the challenges facing it, they might ask themselves questions like these:

  • What are the most pressing problems that need to be solved?
  • What are the ultimate sources of these problems?
  • Can governance responsibilities be adjusted to solve existing problems?Or is new governance needed?
  • Is church and school leadership willing to contemplate disruptive change?
  • Who must be involved, and in what ways, for this to work?

Donors have options that are even bolder than making big changes in the governance of existing Catholic schools. One newer approach to expanding (and altering) the influence of Catholic schooling is to open “faith-inspired” charter schools. These schools are often housed in buildings once occupied by religious schools. They integrate many of the values and pedagogical approaches of faith-based schools. They typically offer religious programming outside of the normal school day. Importantly, though, they can neither explicitly teach religion nor affiliate with a particular religious denomination—because as public schools, charters must avoid heavy church-state entanglements prohibited by the Constitution.

The Catalyst Schools in Chicago are examples of faith-inspired charter schools that grew out of Catholic education. Beginning around 2000, Paul Vallas, head of the Chicago Public Schools, began asking the ­Christian Brothers, who run the successful San Miguel Catholic schools in his city, to open a charter school for the district. For six years, the Brothers said no, first to Vallas and then to his successor Arne Duncan.

Then in 2006 the Brothers agreed. “We finally got to a point where we felt compelled to respond,” explains Catalyst Schools co-founder Ed Siderewicz. “We knew we had a gift and that Arne recognized that gift. It became about doing something completely new that was bigger than us, something that would be good for humanity and for society. We thought we could bring the best from the private Catholic-school model to public education today, and do it with authenticity and integrity while still respecting the law of the land.”

Catalyst’s two schools serve populations that are nearly 100 percent black and low-income. Nonetheless, 90 percent of its seniors graduated in 2013. This compares to 75 percent of students nationally and 63 percent of Chicago Public Schools students.

As public institutions, the Catalyst charter schools cannot provide religious instruction during the school day. Instead, they were founded on four core values that closely align to the values of the Catholic San Miguel schools: relationships, results, rigor, and hope. Students are taught their inherent value as human beings and are instructed to value relationships with fellow man. Siderewicz likens the Catalyst teachers to “urban missionaries” who “believe in these children, in their value, and in their potential to make a difference in the world.”

Catalyst also offers religious wraparound programming through the Maria Kaupas Center. The center provides Catholic instruction for ­Catalyst students after school. Special efforts are made to reach Catalyst’s students of high-school age.

Siderewicz understands the discomfort many feel about the perceived lack of “Catholicness” in these schools. After all, it took him six years to say yes to this project. No matter how “inspired” a faith-inspired charter school may be, practically speaking it does lose much of its distinctiveness when talking to children about God is put off limits.

Siderewicz acknowledges this, yet points out that “only about one in 10 students can afford Catholic schools today, and that’s a problem that’s not being dealt with fast enough. What we’re doing is the most Catholic thing we can think of to do given the financial circumstances of ­Catholic schools. We’re finding a way to serve those who would otherwise be overlooked. It’s a disservice to God’s children to not do anything, to just keep hoping that things will get better.”

He insists that supporting Catholic schools and opening ­faith-inspired charter schools isn’t an either/or decision: “We’re not trying to replace Catholic schools. Where Catholic schools are thriving and can continue, they must continue. They’re national treasures and beacons of hope for thousands of children in underserved communities. But where they’re struggling, there needs to be a very real conversation about how to fix that. It has to be both/and.”

In addition to a safe, high-quality education, Catalyst Schools aims to provide hope to children living in difficult communities. The school has established partnerships with local faith-based institutions, which have been vital to the success of the schools and students. Network leaders are contemplating new campuses (possibly in different cities), as well as conversions of Catholic schools (see next section). But these decisions have not been finalized.

For Siderewicz, one of the greatest markers of success has been watching skepticism and doubt turn to hope as people actually experience the schools. “We had a benefactor breakfast last week,” he recounts. “One stakeholder said, ‘It feels like a public Catholic school to me.’”

Catholic-school conversions

Decidedly more controversial than starting new faith-infused charter schools is to take existing, financially struggling Catholic schools and convert them to charter status. One of the best-known examples of “sector switching” occurred in Washington, D.C. In the late 1990s, declining enrollment in the city’s Catholic elementary system led the diocese to recommend the closure of numerous schools. Instead, Cardinal Hickey and his team created a new central office to take on administrative tasks, freeing principals and pastors of many pressing needs at the threatened schools. The office became known as the Center City Consortium. Consortium staff focused on preserving the 12 endangered schools and ensuring their quality. Though the consortium raised $60 million between 1997 and 2007, financial challenges continued. The consortium faced a $7 million deficit in the 2007-08 school year, and a projected $56 million shortfall over the ensuing five years.

In 2007, a new plan was drafted: keep four schools that were in the best shape operating in a smaller consortium of Catholic schools and convert the other eight into a new network of charter schools. Ultimately, one of the eight slated for charter conversion submitted a sustainability plan that was approved, and it was allowed to become a standalone ­parish-sponsored Catholic school. The remaining seven were converted to charter schools.

The rationale for this plan was simple: As charters, the seven schools would be eligible for public funding. And the schools would remain open in the same buildings, with many of the same teachers, staff, and students—providing a considerable degree of stability for students who would otherwise be displaced by a closure. The downside was also clear: The schools would be unable to teach the Catholic faith in their new form. Many advocates believe that the unusual ability of Catholic schools to lead difficult populations to academic and life success, despite having far fewer resources than public schools, is a direct product of their religious mission, which therefore cannot be put aside.

This same concern pressed on leaders and stakeholders in the ­Archdiocese of Miami as they contemplated a 2009 plan to close seven Catholic schools and open eight public charter schools in the newly empty buildings. That course of action was eventually followed, and ultimately judged a success by some observers (who were pleased that it gave parish priests a source of income, through renting their school buildings, to pay off past debts to the archdiocese and others and thereby sustain their parishes). As in D.C., this course also gave the children who had been attending the Catholic schools a better option than being thrown into conventional public schools of a low quality.

Blended learning

Blended learning combines direct instruction from a teacher, plus small-group activities, with computerized instruction that is personalized for the student depending on how quickly he or she masters a topic. It has been shown to be a powerful tool, particularly for underprivileged children. And because there is some substitution of technology for expensive teachers, it can also help schools save money—offering win-win possibilities for Catholic institutions struggling to keep their tuition affordable.

Teachers can incorporate blended learning into their classrooms in a variety of formats and instructional approaches. Whole systems or schools may choose to adopt a blended model, or individual teachers may implement blended-learning programs in particular classrooms. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s recent book Blended Learning: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Supporting Tech-assisted Teaching provides lots of background and detail on the bright educational prospects of blended learning.

Blended-learning models carry significant up-front costs. To ­implement high-quality programs, schools must acquire computers, software, high-volume Internet connections, and teacher training. Donors are indispensable for schools making these initial investments. Once the initial financial hurdles have been jumped, there is promising evidence that blended learning may save schools money in the long run. A recent report by the Fordham Institute finds that the national average cost per pupil per year for a traditional brick-and-mortar school is $10,000, while schools employing blended learning fall between $7,600 and $10,200.

There is promising evidence that blended learning may save schools money at the same time it improves student performance.

In addition to potential savings, blended learning makes it easier for Catholic schools to meet diverse needs among their students. The ­low-income, minority students that attend many urban Catholic schools often arrive with significant learning delays, gaps in their knowledge, and need for individualized attention to get them caught up. Blended learning is excellent at uncovering and then filling in such gaps. In reading and math especially, high-quality software exists that enables students to learn material at their own pace while providing teachers with frequent assessments of where each student is progressing and where he or she is stuck.

Technology can provide schools with access to rich content that their limited budgets would otherwise not allow. For example, Catholic schools often want to offer students foreign-language classes, but recruiting qualified teachers can be a challenge, and small schools can often afford only one—yielding just a single foreign-language option. A computerized language lab, however, can provide good instruction in many tongues at reasonable cost.

Here are some promising blended-learning models now being implemented in Catholic schools across the country:

Seton Education Partners

Seton Education Partners is a nonprofit offering services to urban Catholic schools across the country. It has created a blended-learning curriculum that inner-city Catholic schools can use to prepare their students to be competitive with more advantaged peers.

“We’ve seen many schools try to implement blended learning on their own, and despite great intentions, too many fail to fundamentally change the way learning happens in the classroom, which is what blended learning is best for,” says Seton co-founder Stephanie Saroki de Garcia. “At each of our partner schools we select and train a ­full-time blended-learning manager (always someone who’s had success with underserved children as a teacher). We ensure that children learn every little routine—from what to do when they get stuck, to how to do short rotations so no learning time is lost. We pay attention to the ­non-technical aspects of great learning—especially relationships and motivation—so we can enhance the very things that have traditionally made Catholic schools successful.”

Seton piloted its blended-learning methods at the Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco, starting in 2011. Students there receive ­blended-learning instruction in math, English, social studies, and science. In each class, students rotate on a fixed schedule between computer stations and face-to-face direct or small-group instruction with the teacher. Students spend approximately one third of their class time, or approximately 80 minutes per day, using online learning software.

Seton has since expanded this blended-learning model to schools in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. Seton now supports eight schools in its six cities, using blended learning to both improve the academic progress of students and cut per pupil costs. Success has been realized in both areas.

First finances: At Mission Dolores Academy, the new ­blended-learning methods allowed the school to move from a 14:1 student-teacher ratio to a 25:1 ratio. That reduced per-pupil costs from $15,000 to below $10,000 in the first year.

Academic performance is also improving. Students in Seton’s ­blended-learning schools take a national achievement test every year. In the 2014-2015 school year, 78 percent of them made at least a year’s worth of growth in math, and 72 percent did so in reading. The national average is 50 percent. This academic growth is even better than what is achieved on the same test at most high-performing charter schools.

“We’re impressed by the results so far and excited about the opportunities to take academic performance even higher,” reports principal Dan Stortz. “The students like the immediate feedback. And teachers report that students are more engaged and classrooms are easier to ­manage with the activity rotation and smaller group instruction.” Parents also seem pleased. The schools that have shifted to Seton’s blended-learning model have experienced an average enrollment growth of 30 percent.

Blended learning, says Seton co-founder Scott Hamilton, “creates time and space for small-group instruction, giving teachers more opportunities to meet the particular needs of each student.” Instructional talent remains important. “We don’t hire anyone to work with kids unless we’ve assessed their teaching, have evidence of student-achievement results, and really get to know them in a series of interviews and exercises,” says Saroki de Garcia.

But she repeated a refrain we have heard many times: Catholic education is struggling to find and keep all the excellent teachers and leaders it needs. “Virtually no one in the country is recruiting, selecting, and compensating urban Catholic-school leaders the right way. In one of our blended-learning sites we’re working with a great principal and he’s getting paid $50,000 to do one of the toughest jobs in America. He is not going to stay.”

Catholic schools need better ways of producing and retaining gifted educators. That is the subject of our next chapter. But by reducing the sheer number of good teachers needed, and by making decent teachers even better, blending learning helps bridge the talent gap.

If Seton’s blended learning is to continue to spread, significant support from philanthropists will be required. Depending on their size, schools need $400,000 or more for hardware, software, wiring, and training in order to shift to the program. To date, donors like the Walton, Hilton, Peters, Bradley, and Specialty foundations and the Philadelphia School Partnership have been vital partners in bringing blended learning to Catholic schools.

San Jose Drexel Initiative

Located in booming Santa Clara County, the schools of the Catholic diocese of San Jose have mostly avoided the dramatic enrollment losses and financial strains experienced by schools in many other big cities. Even so, five of their schools were beginning to experience enrollment decline by 2012, as free charter schools pulled away students. Rather than wait for things to reach a crisis point, church leaders took action. “We must seize this moment to usher in a period of growth and stability,” Bishop Patrick McGrath concluded, “not simply manage a period of maintenance or decline.”

Inspired by the success of blended learning with poor children at Seton’s nearby Mission Dolores Academy, the diocese created its Saint Katharine Drexel Initiative in 2013. This brings blended learning to seven elementary schools. Students at these schools use iPads and other technology to guide their personalized instruction.

From the outset, the Drexel Initiative had two purposes: to improve student learning and to help the schools financially. Schools superintendent Kathy Almazol says the thing they most wanted from the new technology was to “increase student engagement and learning.”

Virtually no one in the country is recruiting, selecting, and compensating urban Catholic-school leaders the right way.

While modeled on Seton’s approach—students in Drexel ­Initiative classrooms rotate in small groups between online and face-to-face instruction—the Drexel Initiative has its own distinctive aspects. These schools remain part of the existing Catholic system, but administrative and financial responsibility for the schools was shifted upward, from the parish to the diocese.

“We changed the governance model to allow priests to do what they are trained to do, which is provide pastoral care,” says the ­Reverend Brendan McGuire, a former Silicon Valley technology executive and now a diocese official. “I want less of their time spent on administration and more of their time in the classroom and in the schoolyard, because that’s where they have the biggest impact. I worked in the corporate world and I worked really, really hard, but I can tell you it pales in comparison to how much I work right now. And that’s the biggest problem facing pastors.”

A second distinctive aspect of the Drexel schools is their partnership with nearby Santa Clara University. “About 10 years ago SCU developed a Catholic School Leadership program, and our schools have benefited greatly from the leaders that have come through there,” says Almazol. Now SCU provides training and a blended-learning certificate program to all of the Drexel teachers.

Local philanthropist John Sobrato, whose company has built many of the commercial structures in Silicon Valley, was a crucial contributor to the Drexel Initiative from the beginning. “We were looking to do something different and exciting. Sobrato was involved. The university got involved. The stars aligned and, with a lot of hard work, it all came together,” Almazol summarizes.

Virtual schooling

Unlike blended learning where students continue to have face-to-face instructional time with a teacher and with other students in groups, virtual schools provide all of their content and instruction online from a remote location. While lots of virtual schools exist, the primary operator offering a specifically Catholic online experience is Catholic Schools K-12 Virtual. CSK12 is both its own freestanding, degree-granting virtual school, and a provider of online courses to traditional Catholic schools who want to supplement their offerings. Schools offer CSK12 classes for various purposes: as advanced courses, to extend their school day, as after-school programs, as summer school, or for students who need to make up credits after failing a class.

Courses are available for students in grades 3-12. They are offered in modules, allowing schools or individual families to create custom classes. Courses come with a syllabus and a guide to help students work through the material at their own pace. They are divided into 36 weekly units of five daily lessons, although the pace can be modified to match individual needs. Students can contact CSK12 teachers via e-mail or telephone, and book appointments for questions or special help. CSK12 also provides live tutorials that students can access through the organization’s website.


In 2009, three Catholic schools in small, rural communities in Michigan were slated to be consolidated together. They had enrollments of 26, 41, and 58 students respectively. But a poll of families revealed that parents would continue to enroll their children only if the consolidated school was located at their current campus. This meant that even if they were combined, the sustainability of the schools would remain doubtful. So church and community leaders developed a plan.

The result was the WINGS Satellite Initiative. School administration was reduced to one principal shared across the three campuses. The three separate school boards were melded into one expanded board. And technology was employed to effect a “virtual consolidation” of the three schools. Funding is still parish-based, with each parish responsible for the facility and faculty specific to its site.

A number of challenges had to be navigated for this to work, ­including staff layoffs, figuring out ways to combine children in new classroom structures, and training teachers in different teaching methods and new technology. Each satellite campus uses computer and individualized blended-learning instruction. And some classrooms combine students of multiple grade levels.

The schools faced a number of challenges in their first year. ­Bandwidth was not sufficient to support the new computer-based instruction, and some of the software did not work as planned. But by the second year most of the kinks had been worked out.

Combined enrollment across the three schools has increased from previous levels. And the consolidation allowed the schools to create a sustainable student-teacher ratio. Overall costs were reduced by nearly 17 percent (more than $150,000 annually), even while wider study opportunities became available at the remade schools.


Responding to the emergence of micro schools, the importance of controlling tuition costs, and the desire for Catholic education in places that might not be able to support a larger school, Parish.Academy offers a lean new operating alternative. Its model is designed to enroll a total of 40-160 students. It is built on a proprietary blended-learning curriculum and intended to fit in underutilized parish facilities, without dedicated administrators. Thanks to their computerized curriculum, ­Parish.Academy schools are projected to run on a $3,850 per-pupil budget, considerably lower than the average tuition rate of a Catholic school.

“A million-dollar donor could open four 160-student micro-schools in the first year, and then two more schools every year without additional investment or fundraising,” says Parish.Academy CEO Gareth Genner. The use of blended learning also enables students to receive a more personalized education that fits their specific needs. Schools maintain their Catholic identity and take faith formation seriously, using Catholic mentors from the parish. While the model is just developing, Genner was chosen to go through the nationally recognized 4.0 Schools incubator, where he developed and honed all aspects of Parish.Academy. To ensure that the blended-learning curriculum works, the model was also successfully piloted in a New Orleans charter school.

Other models for Catholic-school reform

The varied demands of families, and wide interests of donors, create openings for other ways of reforming Catholic schools to make them more effective, attractive to parents, and financially sustainable. The future of the Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for instance, was once in jeopardy. Then it was remade into a “classical” academy with a rigorous curriculum focused on the Western intellectual tradition.

Board president Dave Phelps described to us the crisis he and the Reverend Robert Sirico faced in 2013. “At my first board meeting, the first order of business was whether we should close the school. It was in a bad state. The principal was on his way out. Enrollment had been plummeting for years. There wasn’t even a budget. There hadn’t been a school board in years. The school had trouble collecting tuition. There had been a number of school closings in the diocese, so nobody would’ve blamed us if we decided to follow suit. But the decision was made to see this as an opportunity to do something radical. It was time to throw a Hail Mary, and if it didn’t work, there wasn’t much to lose.”

Local leaders decided to re-found the school as Sacred Heart Academy with a revamped academic program focused on the long arc of Western culture. “By completely overhauling the curriculum into a classical model, we differentiated the school significantly from other options—Catholic and otherwise—in the city,” Phelps explains. “We also opened our doors to homeschooling families to take a la carte classes. In the first year, enrollment grew half again with students taking advantage of this option.”

“When we started, the school had 72 students. Now we serve over 240 kids.” As a result, says Phelps, “the whole parish is going through a renaissance.”

Back in 2010, the financially troubled St. Jerome School in ­Hyattsville, Maryland, adopted a similar approach prioritizing study of the arts, sciences, and literature starting with ancient Greek and Roman sources. It began to offer Latin, Greek history, logic, rhetoric, fine-arts history, traditional moral training, the Socratic method, poetry memorization, and other intellectual challenges to its ­elementary-age students. It is not located in a wealthy area, but its new offerings attracted a range of families, and applications soared almost immediately. The St. Jerome curriculum was soon adopted by other schools in New York, Kentucky, Colorado, and elsewhere, and sparked a ­Catholic classical movement that now holds annual conferences and offers many forms of support.

The highly successful, 19-campus charter-school chain known as Great Hearts Academies has shown that there is a strong appetite among parents for schools that provide traditional, classical liberal-arts education. Curricula combining classical education and Christian instruction are very popular among homeschooling families. The national ­Association of Classical & Christian Schools has close to 250 member schools, many of them thriving, but all but a handful have an evangelical Christian orientation. This is a niche that Catholic schools, particularly those with access to middle-class families, ought to be able to occupy successfully. Donors could make that happen in many cities.

One donor that has invested in several new approaches to Catholic schooling is the GHR Foundation of Minneapolis. “We support the testing and incubation of new models,” says program officer Meg Gehlen Nodzon. “We need to do things differently in the future, including differentiating ourselves beyond just being Catholic.”

GHR has a partnership with St. Catherine University that will soon launch a new STEM program at a Catholic school in St. Paul. They were preceded in this direction by Visitation Catholic STEM Academy in Tacoma, Washington. It represents a fascinating blend of the old and new, bringing a modern academic approach to a school in operation since 1925, and combining Catholic education’s traditional moral and ethical instruction with a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

GHR also has a partnership with Boston College that is ­bringing to Minneapolis a “two-way language immersion” program that the college’s Roche Center for Catholic Education has rolled out in 19 schools across the country. This will allow students to receive half of their instruction in English and half in Spanish. Similarly, the Escuela de Guadalupe School in Denver has gained national recognition for its successful dual-language program.

Fresh opportunities for savvy donors

Today’s oft-seen willingness to alter, remake, or trade in what was once thought to be the immutable, defining characteristic of Catholic education—the parish school—is an important sign of Catholic education’s renewed energy and entrepreneurialism. While largely autonomous parish-run schools will forever be an important part of K-12 Catholic schooling, we’re now seeing useful variations on that theme. This experimentation is a positive sign.

Consortia are bringing independent parish schools together in creative ways. Networks are altogether reassigning authority over schools, innovating with curriculum, staffing, and more, and creating plans for growth. Chartering offers a way to preserve longstanding schools while moving explicitly religious education to before- and after-school programming. Blended and online models are personalizing learning and reducing costs. New curricular models are enabling schools to specialize their offerings to meet the varying interests of families.

There is a strong appetite among parents for schools that provide classical liberal- arts education.

Catholic-school philanthropists eager to invest in promising new approaches now have countless options. There is ample room for innovation and change while preserving the core of Catholic education, as the examples in this chapter demonstrate. Nearly all of the initiatives highlighted here would benefit greatly from additional donor investments. Almost all are transportable to new cities and regions. Many of these fresh approaches could be combined in hybrid models. And there are options stretching far beyond the ones we have sketched here.

A donor might want to begin by deciding which local challenges he or she would most like to address. Enrollment losses? The need for new finance patterns? Competing with charter schools? Widening curricular options? Reaching more poor families? Attracting more middle-class families? There are opportunities in every direction. Then the donor can pick and choose from strategies being piloted across the nation. Happily, there is a growing range of tools that philanthropists can wield.

Your answer might be a nonprofit that takes over a string of struggling parish schools. It might be adding an online program of AP courses in one or more high schools. You may favor a values-infused charter school with wraparound Catholic services. Or something completely new and different could capture your imagination. More than at any time in the past, there is room for savvy social entrepreneurialism in Catholic education.

A Minneapolis center of excellence

A group of lay leaders, funders, principals, and pastors set out to create a new structure to manage the Catholic schools in ­Minneapolis-­St. Paul. Their original idea was to create a new entity that would directly run 10 to 15 schools, and provide support and services to 90 Catholic schools in the Twin Cities. But a crisis intervened and this new organization never got off the ground.

Criminal behavior and financial improprieties by priests brought legal charges, resignations, and a bankruptcy disaster to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Archdiocese. Part of the fallout was the shuttering of the Office of Catholic Schools. Richard Schulze, founder of Best Buy and of the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, stepped in to help fill
this breach.

The Schulze Family Foundation invited all of the region’s Catholic school leaders to meet together. Those attending said they’d never met three quarters of the others in the room, according to Schulze’s Steve Hoeppner, revealing serious gaps in communications and collaboration. Afterward, foundation staff visited all K-8 schools in the metro area and interviewed each principal. “It wasn’t about telling them what to do,” said Hoeppner. “We want to help the schools academically, operationally, and spiritually, but we don’t want to impose practices.” These interviews revealed overarching problems of decreasing enrollment and increasing costs. They also spotlighted specific needs like better teacher training, improved technology, more marketing, support for ­high-need students, and modernized development and outreach plans.

Armed with these findings, Richard Schulze worked to identify other local donors willing to become partners in support of Catholic elementary schools. The GHR Foundation, the local Catholic Community Foundation, and the Aim Higher Foundation agreed to join forces, and the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence was born as an independent 501(c)(3). Gail Dorn, a former vice president at Target, was hired as president and the organization launched in 2015.

Early projects inaugurated by the center included a webinar to train principals on personal tech devices like iPads, and a workshop on managing student enrollment processes. More than 100 principals and school leaders signed up to attend these. As this is written the center is working with schools to develop a centralized purchasing process that will reduce costs.

“We’re really just trying to get as much help out there as possible,” says Hoeppner. “We want to be there for the schools as an approachable support system. We want schools to come to us for help.” The center does not charge for its services.

There are many lessons for donors in this initiative. The comprehensive assessment of needs via principal interviews, the collaboration among multiple funders, the development of a new external organization to provide tailored support, and other aspects are eminently copyable. Donors interested in helping their local schools might start by asking three questions: Do we know what our schools need? Are external partners for meeting their needs available? Do we have, or can we form, an organization able to provide goods and services?

Close-up on Independence Mission Schools

During a period when enrollment at Philadelphia’s diocese schools was dropping more than 30 percent, DePaul Catholic School ended up with just 181 students. Music instructors, physical-education teachers, and librarians had been cut, leaving the nine homeroom teachers juggling multiple responsibilities. Nearly half of the school’s classrooms were unused.

When Independence Mission Schools took over eight campuses slated to be closed by the archdiocese, DePaul and five others opted to join their network. By 2015, three years later, there are a total of 15 affiliated schools and turnarounds are underway. DePaul has 485 students and is running out of classroom space. The school received 422 new applicants for the 2014-2015 school year.

IMS has lowered tuition every year, with the ultimate goal of bringing it under $2,000 per year as its fundraising gets more and more robust. It also handles enrollment from its headquarters office instead of letting this fall on overworked school staff as in the past. ­Communication with parents has improved, and less than 1 percent of families are behind on their tuition across the IMS network. “There is greater transparency now,” says IMS president Anne McGoldrick. “Parents know exactly where their money is going.”

DePaul entered a cooperative agreement with Seton Education Partners in 2013 that is turning the school into a blended-l­earning campus. Use of sophisticated computer instruction allows a higher student-teacher ratio without sacrificing academic performance, saving costs while also personalizing instruction much more closely to each individual student. Every DePaul student now has a laptop and rotates between direct teacher instruction, group work with other students, and individual work at a computer. Teachers supervise small groups of students within the rotation model.

On the day of our visit, one third of the students in the ­second-grade classroom were working with scissors and glue, one third were doing math exercises on ­computers, and one third were ­taking a reading test. Students at the laptop stations had on headphones and were focused on their individual work. The students involved in the craft project had direct teacher supervision. She asked them questions about what they were assembling and they all shouted “no!” in unison.

Blended-learning software gives teachers and parents rich data on individual student progress and task mastery. “Blended learning challenges students at both ends of the spectrum,” explained one teacher. “It builds confidence for struggling students, and offers new challenges to those who finish early. Everyone sees success at some point.” Reading growth at DePaul has been significant since the new instruction began: the number of K-2 students reading on grade level increased by 42 percent in four months.

The IMS network has made it easier for teachers in its Catholic schools to get involved in useful peer networks like PhillyPLUS, KIPP’s Emerging Leader Program, and offerings of the Philadelphia School Partnership. For instance, four school leaders have completed the PhillyPlus fellowship, described as “career changing,” and four more will do so this coming year. ­PhillyPlus works with about 20 teachers at a time, from district-run, charter, religious, and private schools, who aspire to school-leadership positions. The two-year program provides training in year one, then helps place fellows in management positions and provides coaching and support throughout year two. Connections like this with experts and other teachers are helping Catholic educators thrive. “We know whom to call when we have questions,” says IMS’s McGoldrick. “This would have been like manna from heaven for a standalone ­Catholic school.”

Rising enrollment and improved finances have enabled a number of IMS campuses to hire an assistant principal. McGoldrick describes these additions as “the best investment” they’ve made. “We were asking people to turn things around and then we actually gave them the resources to do so.” Before IMS, only two schools had assistant principals; at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, there will be nine.

IMS is hiring higher quality, more experienced staff attracted by the renewed mission for these schools. It has also been able to reduce teacher turnover significantly at all schools. The organization needs time to develop stronger teacher-evaluation systems, but in the meantime they are offering more professional development to instructors and leaders. One principal, for instance, will attend the highly successful Relay ­Graduate School of Education beginning this summer. Teachers are being trained for new work in summer literacy programs and on a ­blended-learning initiative.

The new management structure is allowing staff to focus on instruction, curricular updates, and new teaching styles. At St. ­Thomas Aquinas School, for example, a recent grant funded the school’s first science lab, with digital microscopes and a hands-on curriculum aligned with Common Core standards. Small group instruction is a new emphasis. Evidence of increased student engagement can be seen in improved daily attendance rates.

As in many inner-city Catholic schools, a significant majority of the students in the Independence Mission Schools are not ­Catholic. Yet the network is committed to offering spiritual education that is relevant to Catholics and ­non-Catholics alike. Prayer services include students of all Christian faiths. All campuses have religious icons in the hallways. Walls are peppered with inspirational statements from religious ­figures. “Christ is the reason for this school” reads one sign at DePaul.

Important questions remain: How many non-Catholic teachers and principals would IMS hire? Are there key roles that should always be staffed by Catholics? The network is still working out these issues, but it is clear the education being offered remains a Catholic one. “The world constantly tells these kids that they don’t have value. We tell them they do, that they are all creatures in God’s love,” says McGoldrick. The choice to keep the original Catholic name of each school also honors the importance of the neighborhood’s history and its intangible social capital.

Donors considering importing elements of the Independence Mission Schools approach to other cities should be aware of two details that helped this network spring up. Pennsylvania has a small tax-credit scholarship program that allows some families to afford tuition that would otherwise be beyond reach. (Such programs are discussed in Chapter 5.) And when the archdiocese handed over its schools to the nonprofit, it ceded practically all control, allowing the board of directors to innovate and find new solutions. This autonomy will be central to the healthy evolution of these schools.

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