The Need to Think Differently and Reverse the Trend

By Don Drees, President, and Dr. William Hughes, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer


The once-promising Jubilee Catholic Schools is closing down– handing off their schools to public or charter schools – putting families and students into chaos.  Jubilee was once a lighthouse in Catholic education and Memphis, but is now going dark and casting uncertainty upon their students and families.  They are blaming a lack of donors and a trend of failing Catholic Schools.  This is a familiar story in Catholic education, however for the students and families that rely on these community schools, failing is not acceptable.

This work is not for those without belief and courage.

To quote the Gospel of Mark “All things are possible with God.” (10:27)

Catholic education, especially in urban communities, needs to change. It is too valuable for students, families and our communities.  2018 provides an opportunity to move past conversation to action for Catholic schools.  Now is the time to envision new management systems for schools in high-poverty communities – governing urban Catholic schools the same way they have been governed in the past and expecting different results has proven to be a failing system.

The last two years of launching, building and refining a new model for Catholic education in Milwaukee, the Seton Catholic Schools network has identified several key barriers that need change now, including finances, management and attitudes.

First, the attitude adjustment:  Too many Catholic schools have been allowed to close by those who can’t think differently.  They keep trying the same tired methods and then accept that the downward trend is reality, when in fact, in some cities, Catholic education is on the upward swing.  Close to two million children remain in Catholic schools today. This includes a great many low-income and minority children for whom Catholic schooling is a lifeline in an otherwise dysfunctional neighborhood.

We know the reasons why.  Catholic schools get enormous bang for their educational buck—posting graduation rates, college success patterns and levels of constructive student behavior that far exceed the performance at counterpart public institutions. Most Catholic schools produce academic results that are notably stronger than conventional public schools serving the same children.  But, the age of the stand-alone private schools is about over.  Catholic schools need to collaborate and share resources and leadership; those changes go against more than a hundred years of parochial history.

School and parish relationships are vitally important to the formation of Catholic students.  Schools need strong support from pastors and parish leadership in the formation of students and building of communities. However, professional school leaders should not be limited by historical parochial practices, nor should they be at the whim of parochial leaders and diocese.

Thinking differently is a solution to failing schools. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, a school or company that is failing needs to be immediately re-visioned and reloaded.  It requires people who think different, feel different and behave different. These are the people who can’t easily fit into the square box of what has been. Strong organizations value and seek them out because they deliver results at warp speed.  They make people uncomfortable. They challenge thoughts, processes and the status quo. They disrupt and dismiss. They push. They raise the bar for everyone else and they call people out that aren’t doing their work well. They’re not being difficult on purpose — they’re being themselves. They see things differently and in 2018, Catholic schools need to think differently.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of educators and business leaders that want to do this work.

Second, school management:  New private school management organizations, like Seton Catholic Schools, are thriving.  Seton is part of a growing movement of private management organizations lead by entrepreneurial school and business leaders to build out successful, high-performing, faith-based schools in challenged neighborhoods.  Private school management organizations require a clear focus, a 21st century financial strategy that includes best business practices, an educational model that works, a talent strategy that is the differentiator to attract the best and brightest working in high-poverty schools.  These leaders are experienced in leading 500+ person organizations.

Managing schools, especially schools where most children are in poverty, has become increasingly complex.  The good news is, many of our students are eligible for substantial funding from state and federal programs.  The bad news is, most parish schools do not have the sophistication to go after these funds.  In our first year as a network, we were denied by title and e-rate programs at times, but we had experienced leadership that understood that was not legal.  With deep understanding of these bureaucracies, there are millions of new dollars available to support Catholic education, but it requires sophisticated management and people that can focus on these opportunities.

Third, the financial model: While financial challenges are given as the reason, as is so often the case, we also believe that the outdated financial model linked to thinking within the walls of tradition rather than being innovative and different may also be a root cause in Memphis.

A lesson is that a single or a few donors do not make a financially vibrant organization.  Donors of all faiths, and even no faith, are participating in private school management organizations—recognizing the value that our Catholic schools add to the community, in particular, educating children trapped in high-poverty communities who have been failed by public schools. Donors understand risk, but they also want to see other donors engaged in the enterprise and more so, that the funds are used as the innovator of the effort, not the platform for long-term.  Other donors will join when they see that proven business practices, a successful academic model and the concept that talent is the differentiator in Catholic schools is worth the risk.  Private management organizations using sound business practices find financial efficiencies that are applied to the sustainability of the schools.  And then there is always the possibility of a voucher or tax credit that is part of the movement of private schools.

While we are saddened that Memphis’s Jubilee Schools are taking the traditional path of shutting down the schools, we think differently because we refuse to accept the inevitability of the decline of Catholic schools, but rather to reverse the trend in Milwaukee. Thankfully, our Milwaukee Catholic leadership thinks differently – with students and families benefiting from the leadership of The Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki, Archbishop of Milwaukee.

That same lesson can be applied to any city that wants to save Catholic schools, including Memphis, if we rally around the schools and kids of Jubilee.  Just think what is possible if we think differently and re-envision better, while doing the hardest work in schools.