By: Melenie Soucheray

A Nov. 14 forum hosted by the Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota addressed the issue of Catholic education by asking five educators and philanthropists the question, “Can urban Catholic elementary schools close the achievement gap and be self-sustaining?”

The consensus: Yes.

Held at Our Lady of Grace in Edina, the panel agreed that collaboration among pastors, educators, families, alumni, philanthropists, and public policy makers is needed to tackle the challenges, which panelists cited as poverty, lack of teacher support and low buy-in for Catholic education.

Benito Matias, principal of Ascension Catholic School in north Minneapolis, said many urban students are poor, and their home lives are unsettled, making learning difficult. Students need support while being held accountable to meet their goals.

Christine Healey, president of the Camden, New Jersey-based Healey Foundation, said teachers must have access to necessary coaching and tools.

Meghan Gehlen Nodzon, senior program officer with Twin Cities-based GHR Foundation, said supplemental services such as meals, counselors, social workers and extracurricular activities could make a difference in closing the achievement gap.

She also pointed out that a charter school model isn’t popular for Catholic schools because it would limit their ability to incorporate Catholic values throughout the curriculum. While charter schools are funded with public school monies and allow for parents and school leaders to collaborate on innovative curricula, religion-related classes would have to be scheduled outside of the regular school day.

Click the photo above to view the event gallery.

Financial models have changed, noted Barry Lieske, president of DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis and panel moderator, and at least 25 percent of students in urban Catholic schools live in poverty. Costs have risen to cover the salaries of lay teachers when tuition used to be enough with mainly priests and religious sisters and brothers comprising faculties. Karen Rauenhorst, chair of the AIM Higher Foundation board of directors, said the religious faculty members throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis began leaving schools about 30 years ago.

“We started losing 1,000 kids per year out of our Catholic elementary schools,” said Rauenhorst, whose organization provides tuition assistance scholarships to Catholic school students in the archdiocese.

Lieske said that a little more than 5 million children were enrolled in U.S. Catholic schools in 1960, and today, that number has dropped to less than 2 million.

“How do you stop the bleeding?” he asked.

Rauenhorst said that in recent years, parents and laity across the country have expressed the need for Catholic schools, and parents are choosing a Catholic education for their children.

“We have to have strong parish leadership,” Rauenhorst said. “Some of our pastors have to say this is critical. I think that people would know it is our responsibility to see that our schools provide an excellent educational opportunity for all students.

“Data show that tax credits make a difference in the quality of education,” she added. “It would be a significant game changer.”

Gehlen Nodzon said several states have instituted a tax credit for families that choose to send their children to non-public schools, but not Minnesota — yet. In the last few years, school choice and voucher program bills have been introduced in the legislature. None have passed.

Doug Milroy, former chairman and CEO of G&K Services Inc. and an advocate for Catholic education, urged the audience to “do what works” and make their voices heard by lawmakers.

“Politics is scary; many people won’t touch it,” he said. “To me, the opportunity for school choice is a little bit like a Mother Teresa moment. She never touched the political stuff. She just said, ‘Here’s what needs to be done. Here is what I know will make a difference.’ Then she just went ahead and did it.”

The forum was the first in a three-part series coinciding with CCF’s 25th anniversary. The second forum will address how Catholic millennials engage in their faith, and the third forum will explore how to support young mothers and their children in crisis. The series will culminate with an April 26 celebration.

Teri and Kevin McCloughan, parishioners of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, attended the education forum. The couple sent their four children to Catholic school and believe it gave them a “chance to thrive and be very successful,” said Teri, who serves on the board of directors for Risen Christ Catholic School, a dual-language immersion school in Minneapolis.

Now that their children are grown, the couple can look at what kind of legacy they want to leave.

“It goes back to what the panel[ists] said,” Teri added. “What are we going to do through our donor advised fund [at CCF] by volunteering our time, and by using the expertise from our careers to give back to the organizations that make a difference in people’s lives? Catholic education is very dear to my heart.”

Go to the Catholic Spirit website.

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