Photo from Atonement Academy.

The Atonement Academy, the parish school of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church, is the pride of San Antonio’s Catholic K-12 school program. Last September it was selected to be on the Top 50 Catholic Schools Honor Roll by the Cardinal Newman Society, one of five Texas schools to earn the recognition.

Academic performance might be a problem in the city’s public schools, but not for the San Antonio archdiocese, which now lists 30 schools, including eight high schools, on its website. There were no dropouts in 2010, and  virtually everyone graduates from the 2010 class and went on to attend college. For the nearly 600 students who attend the PreK4-12 Atonement Academy, a solid academic education and equally rigorous spiritual grounding are guaranteed.

Photo from Atonement Academy.

So why are San Antonio’s Catholic schools in trouble? The short answer is that the Archdiocese cannot afford to provide all the city’s Catholic children that kind of education. The Atonement Academy is located south of Loop 1604 near Kyle Seal Parkway, not far from the UTSA main campus. Right now there is nothing to equal to it in the inner city where the majority of San Antonio’s economically challenged minority students live.

San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantú

San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Oscar Cantú had the unenviable job early last year of presiding over the latest parish schools to close. The Archdiocese has not made the decline of inner Catholic schools part of the larger community conversation about our general K-12 education crisis, and the closures were a one-day story in the local media.

In fact, reporters were asked to leave the meeting at St. Philip of Jesus Catholic Church as Cantú and others met with distraught parents over plans to close two historic Southside parishes, St. Philip of Jesus and St. Cecilia, and then a third, St. Leo the Great, once a regional academic academy was opened in the former St. John’s Seminary. It was as if suppressing the headlines would somehow reduce the scale of the problem.

Good Shepherd Catholic Academy, a K-8 school located near I-35 south and Hwy. 90 West, did open last fall, replacing the three closed parish schools. Another academy is slated for opening next to Mission Concepción.

Three years earlier, the same closure scenario played out for families whose children were attending St. Joseph Catholic School and St. John the Evangelist School.

It’s not a “Catholic problem.” It’s a “San Antonio problem.” Catholic schools have provided a disproportionately high percentage of community and civic leaders in this city over the generations, but for decades now, parochial schools have been succumbing to falling enrollment rates and reduced financial support. The inner city parish school has become the Catholic Church’s equivalent of the old, one-room schoolhouse.

Improving education outcomes for inner city students, mostly economically challenged minorities, is our city’s biggest shared challenge. Losing an alternative to underperforming public schools does not bode well for a city beset by high dropout rates, teen pregnancies and juvenile crime.

Rivard in his St. Monica days.

I was part of the parochial school system’s great mid-century expansion and then even faster contraction. Since the 19th century, Catholic parish schools had served as the refuge for immigrant families, including the Rivards from Quebec and, on my mother’s side, the O’Neills and Gallaghers from Ireland. The schools offered academic excellence and spiritual training as an alternative to the secular, less demanding public schools.

My brothers and I were part of  the Baby Boom explosion in Catholic school growth. More than five million children, 12% of all grade school students, were enrolled in one of the nation’s 13,000 Catholic schools by the mid-1960s. We were in the first class of students at St. Monica Catholic School in Kalamazoo, and as my father’s job moved us around the country, St. Margaret Catholic School in Pearl River, NY and St. Alphonsus Catholic School and then Bishop McDeviit High School in the Philadelphia area. All four schools were founded in the 1950s and early 1960s to meet the new demand.

Like many of my generation, I didn’t finish in Catholic schools. I eagerly exited the system halfway though high school to attend public high school – turned off by socially repressive teachings that prevented discussion of the Vietnam War, birth control or social unrest, yet still embraced disciplinary practices that allowed teachers to punch students in the face and get away with it.

The declines that followed in the late 1960s and 1970s occurred with an even greater rapidity than the buildup, as the rise of the suburbs and the diminishing role organized religion played in modern society undermined the system. For many Catholic families, mine included, a Catholic education was no longer an essential part of our self-identity as practicing Catholics. Half the schools open in 1960 are now closed; enrollment has fallen by 60%.

Archdiocese of San Antonio Crest

Today, the Archdiocese of San Antonio lists 30 active schools, including eight high schools, and 139 parishes on its website. Clearly, most parish churches no longer have schools.

Experts agree on the main reasons why:

  • Educated Catholic parents, like others who could afford it, moved their families to more affluent neighborhoods, draining inner city parishes of some of the most stable families and college-bound children.
  • Since the advent of the mid-century American suburbs, inner-city parochial schools have been left to serve the working poor. The Church hierarchy has struggled to develop sustainable funding mechanisms, such as wealthier, suburban parishes underwriting the costs of operating inner city parish schools. In some respects, the funding challenges mirror those of the Texas public school system, where the quality of education a student is afforded often depends on the zip code in which they reside. Philanthropists have pushed church leaders to consolidate schools, eliminate overhead, and reduce costs.
  • The parochial system was run by the pastor, or senior parish priest, and underwritten by the Sunday collection box. The pastor was the school superintendent, regardless of his qualifications. There are fewer priests with each passing year, a trend masked somewhat by foreign-born priests from developing countries being recruited to fill empty slots. Even so, individual parishes don’t have the financial resources to support stand-alone schools. Even an archdiocese might not be big enough to maintain a sustainable alternative model.
  • Unsalaried nuns occupied the majority of the teaching and administrative positions. Fewer and fewer U.S. women see the convent or Catholicism as a calling. The Church remains a patriarchy, unwilling to reform traditional gender practices and its positions on issues such as birth control and abortion. This has accelerated the move of many educated women away from active roles in the Church.
  • Fewer people attend religious services or engage in parish life, even among families and individuals who self-identify as Catholics. Many only attend Mass or take the sacraments on Holy Days like Christmas, Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. That means less money each week when the baskets are passed in the church pews. Tithing, or giving 10% of one’s income to the Church, is practiced only by a small percentage of parishioners.
  • The continuing growth of charter schools, especially faith-based charter schools, means more competition for students from families seeking alternatives to inner city public schools. Catholic schools have a much more established academic track record than charter schools, but superior marketing and free tuition have enabled charter schools to strip their Catholic counterparts of students.

What can San Antonio’s Catholic leaders do to address the problem? There is plenty of research on the matter. A good overview is “Sustaining Urban Catholic Elementary Schools,” the 2011 study Conducted by Boston College’s Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch School of Education. “Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?“, which appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of National Affairs, is another comprehensive read on the subject. Only today, the New York Times published an op-ed piece on the subject.

One model, the highly regarded Cristo Rey network of college preparatory Catholic high schools, has 25 campuses in 17 states, but a school in Houston is its only branch in Texas. Sooner or later, it seems inevitable that parish schools, except in the wealthiest parishes, will close. Catholic school leaders would be wise to offer area campuses in all parts of the city that equally serve rich and poor from PreK-12. One possibility is to locate such academies on the campuses of the city’s Catholic universities.

The future of Catholic education should not be a conversation limited to parish halls and Sunday homilies. It should be included in the larger, citywide conversation about education reform as all levels of society grapple with the need to improve education outcomes.

The most successful dioceses seem to blend academic and fiscal reform with effective fundraising, which includes getting wealthier parishes to support poorer parishes. A strong public awareness campaign also would be helpful. What will happen here? The jury is still out in San Antonio. On its current course, the only certainty for the archdiocese is more parish school closings.

Monday’s related story: Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio?

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.