N.Y. Archdiocese Cuts Funding To 10 Schools

Catholic schools across the country are in trouble. Changes in demographics, finances and religious life are part of the picture. Now the New York Archdiocese is telling 10 Catholic high schools that church funding will be a thing of the past. Local boards will fundraise, set budgets and tuition. Whether it will work is unclear, but other Catholic communities have done this with success.

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One of the world's largest private school systems is under stress. That system is in New York City, where the private schools include Catholic schools in trouble. Demographic changes play a part; so do changes in religious life and also a lack of money. Now in some places the church is at least financially letting go of its schools. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Recently, the New York archdiocese, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, and part of upstate New York, told 10 Catholic high schools that they would no longer be funded by the church. Cardinal Hayes High School is one such school. It has a little over 1,000 male students; 98 percent are Latino or African-American. Its tuition is $5,700 a year and many students receive financial aid. Now an independent school board will set the budget, the tuition and do its own fundraising.

Ms. SECORA FELICIANO (Teacher): No. It's the order in which it's found in the Bible, 'cause that's the order in which you're going to have to know it for the quiz on Friday.

ADLER: In a religion class, Secora Feliciano(ph) prepares students for a coming test.

Ms. FELICIANO: You have to break down that sentence into the three parts that constitute the answer. Look, these letters. Which letters are…

Unidentified Person (Student): I have the answer.

Ms. FELICIANO: …(unintelligible) the letters. Moses, you're working independently, Moses.

ADLER: The church will still oversee the school's religious life. The president of Cardinal Hayes, Father Joseph Tierney, says for this school in the South Bronx…

Father JOSEPH TIERNEY (Cardinal Hayes High School): Every day is a challenge for our young men. The streets that they live on, the homes and areas that they come from is a challenge to them. This is another challenge for us, the administration.

ADLER: This school has a 98 percent graduation rate; 97 percent go to college. There are powerful alumni, like Regis Philbin, so Tierney says he's optimistic. The decision allows these schools to stay private and Catholic, unlike seven schools in Washington, D.C. which to survive became charter schools and gave up their religious identity. Four Brooklyn schools may also take that route.

But Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, says the New York archdiocese is following the lead of many other communities, like Kansas City and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Ms. KAREN RISTAU (National Catholic Educational Association): What New York is doing is not unlike what many other places have done. They've said to these schools we support you but not financially.

ADLER: Once upon a time, this large private school system had 12,000 schools and five to six million students. Now it's about half that. What lead to the decline? First, demography. The urban enclaves of Irish, Italian, Central Europeans migrated to the suburbs.

Then there was the decline of the religious community - sisters, brothers, priests. Forty years ago, most of the teachers were religious and lived in religious communities. That subsidized the cost of a Catholic education. No longer. Father Tim Scully directs the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame.

Father TIM SCULLY (Institute for Educational Initiatives): Whereas 90 percent in the 1960s were religious, who were subsidizing practically a free salary, we have now 95 percent lay people in these schools. It has taken about 40 years for that reality to come crashing down on the Catholic community.

ADLER: Lay people need salaries. They need pensions. Even priests and nuns now have more expenses than they once had. Many are aging with health care needs. So tuition at these schools is rising and many find it hard to pay. Father Scully says the schools now serve a huge social justice function of the church.

Father SCULLY: In many cases these schools are teaching populations that are significantly minority and in many cases not Catholic. These are underserved populations that can scarcely afford the tuition requirements that have actually, of course, increased because of the changing demographics of our faculty.

ADLER: Not to mention the rising costs of a modern education with science labs and computers. Privatizing Catholic schools using local school boards, private philanthropy and fundraisers could be a way out.

Mr. JOSEPH ZWILLING (Spokesman, Archdiocese of New York): We couldn't continue along the path we were on and expect the schools to survive.

ADLER: Joseph Zwilling is the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York. He says local school boards will now be responsible for the day to day administration of these high schools. Zwilling says these are great schools.

Mr. ZWILLING: They deserve to be filled to the rafters. What we provide in these schools, really, is unmatched, especially at the price.

ADLER: Father Tim Scully says neither America as a whole nor the Catholic Church has really understood how vital a service these schools provide to poor and underserved communities. He says he often feels like someone talking about global warming a long time ago.

Father SCULLY: These are little islands of social capital. They're little bit like the polar ice cap. I mean, when they disappear - and they're disappearing at a rate similar to the polar ice cap. When they disappear, you can't get them back.

ADLER: The New York Archdiocese says this new model will take a while to get going. It hopes it will give New York Catholic schools new life and vitality.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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