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Report on Catholic schools ‘optimistic’

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, January 19, 2007

In response to declining enrollments at Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Notre Dame Task Force on Catholic Education has produced a report that outlines a strategic plan to strengthen Catholic schools.

Task force chair Rev. Timothy Scully, who directs Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, said the report is optimistic about the future of the world’s largest private school system.

“We’re bullish about Catholic schools,” Scully said.

The report, entitled “Making God Known, Loved, and Served: The Future of Catholic Primary and Secondary Schools in the United States,” was produced by a committee of approximately 50 people from Notre Dame and around the country, including educators, administrators, investment specialists and leaders in other fields.

The task force began meeting in September 2005 when University President Father John Jenkins commissioned the study in response to the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) 2005 pastoral statement, “Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.”

The bishops’ statement said Catholic education is “the responsibility of the entire community.” As the leading Catholic university in the United States, “Notre Dame not only has a responsibility, but also an enormous opportunity” to continue the tradition of Catholic schools, Scully said.

Citing a book by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee and Peter Holland titled “Catholic Schools and the Common Good,” Scully said Catholic schools provide an educational experience that cannot be found in government-run schools. Catholic schools offer a sense of community, a basic curriculum with a focus on reading, writing and arithmetic and remain free from political pressures, Scully said.

“The most important thing is that Catholic schools offer a learning environment that is penetrated by faith,” Scully said. “And that makes a difference. The learning enterprise … is one where values are taught as an integral part of the curriculum.

“It’s not just information,” he added, “- it’s knowledge in pursuit of faith and faith in pursuit of knowledge.”

According to Scully, the growing number of faith-based schools throughout the country suggests a growing interest in alternative choices to state-run schools. Enrollment has been increasing at such alternative schools – excepting Catholic parochial schools, he said.

Enter Notre Dame’s task force report.

The report identifies four goals for improving elementary and secondary Catholic schools: strengthening Catholic identity, attracting and forming talented leaders, ensuring academic excellence and financing Catholic schools. Based on these four areas, the report recommends specific ways Notre Dame and the Church can achieve these objectives.

The twelve recommendations for Notre Dame include:

urecruiting and forming a new generation of Catholic school teachers and leaders

uforming partnerships with other Catholic colleges and universities as well as Catholic primary and secondary schools

uattracting and supporting the Latino community to attend Catholic schools

uaccessing public funds for Catholic schools and students

uusing Notre Dame’s marketing prowess to attract families to Catholic schools.

Marketing Catholic schools is a complex issue, Scully said. The marketing strategy must be individualized for its audience, he said, so the techniques to recruit suburban families will be different from those used to recruit inner-city students. But before a Catholic education can be marketed, Notre Dame and the Catholic Church should make sure the quality of the education offered is “superb,” Scully said.

So, “[t]he report aims at, before marketing anything, enhancing the quality of the experience,” he said. “[This includes] both the educational and the faith-based experience of a Catholic education.”

One way Notre Dame will continue to enhance the quality of American Catholic schools is through the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), a two-year service program founded by Scully. The program, started in 1994, gives participants a Master of Education degree and two years of teaching experience. ACE has sent “the best and the brightest” to under-resourced Catholic schools in the United States, Scully said.

“What education is about essentially is about recruiting talent,” Scully said. “The best schools are the schools that recruit the most talented people.

“What ACE has done is dramatically improve the quality and the character of the talent that is available to Catholic schools.”

Now that the report has established the areas of focus, the next step is to break the requirements of the report down into “bite-size pieces, pieces we can chew,” Scully said.

Scully was invited to present the report to a joint session of the USCCB education and catechesis committees Jan. 9 in Washington.

“The Bishop’s conference gave us [its] full blessing and support as we move forward toward implementation of these recommendations,” Scully said.

The University will accomplish most of its objectives through the Institute for Education Initiatives and ACE, Scully said.