“Do You Have Any Suggestions to Help Our Struggling Inner-City Schools?”

“Do you have any suggestions to help our inner-city Catholic schools?  These schools have representation from low socioeconomic groups that have difficulty paying, transient workers with varied ethnic backgrounds, or minority students that are from the surrounding areas but are not a part of the parish.  How can these schools survive today?”

This is an extremely difficult question for a Catholic school to answer.  As Catholic Christians, we know we are to provide a preferential option for the poor as a matter of social justice. Yet, we know that schools, for the most part, are not simply ministries of the parish, and must charge tuition in order to pay teachers along with the utility bills.

In the past, it was the charism of the religious men and women that helped sustain schools and served the poor along side the affluent of a parish in the Catholic school.  If the school did not charge tuition, it was because of groups like the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Order of Preachers, the Society of Mary, the Society of Jesus and Brothers of the Christian Schools and their promises and vows of poverty, chastity and obedience along with their sacrifices that made a Catholic school education possible.

Today, many schools report that 80 to 90% of their budgets are used for teacher salaries and benefits, and wish to return to those days when educator roles were filled by religious men and women today.  However, that comparison is impossible to make since religious men and women who are employed in schools today are expected to earn a salary to help support their respective communities.  Even if men and women religious returned, Catholic schools would still be in the same predicament they are today.

I believe it all goes back to “mission” – as in, “What is the mission of the school, of the parish, and of the Diocese where these schools are located?”  There are programs today where inner-city Catholic schools with a high percentage of non-Catholic students are surviving through the efforts of Diocesan support by way of a foundation.  Significant funds are solicited from other foundations, generous alumni, donors and benefactors, and planned giving strategies to provide a Catholic school education to these students that come from a low socio-economic background.  There are also programs like Cristo-Rey schools, where the business community takes an active part in mentoring students.

Inner-city Catholic schools can also survive on a parish level if the parish’s mission is to provide this type of outreach to the school.  Perhaps the parishioners are older with grown children that have moved away, yet take great enjoyment in volunteering at the school as they may have done when their children were in school.  Perhaps the children are from neighboring Christian churches that can’t generate enough interest to begin a Christian school of their own, so they help to fund the education that their children are receiving at the Catholic school.  Perhaps there are a cadre of volunteer parents that work as would volunteers at any other type of non-profit organization, taking on roles usually expected to be filled by paid personnel.

Can the schools survive on their own, apart from parish or Diocesan support?  Taking a look at the DREAM model of Advancement, can the school be a place of remarkable achievement that is able to be articulated, resulting in positive word-of-mouth marketing?  Yes.  Will parents enroll their children in the school if tuition is shown to be affordable to them or financial aid is offered?  Yes.  Will parents remain in the school, engaged within the community of parents with the belief that the school is the best educational environment for their children? Yes.  Will every effort be made to attempt to collect what little tuition might be charged?  Yes.  Then the only element that stands out is a successful Development program.

Unless schools are funded by generous benefactors, or have the ability to afford a full-time Development/Advancement Director that is adept in making the case for the school, the prognosis is not good.  Note that “generous benefactors” is pluralized, since some schools, as well as systems of schools, have fallen on hard times when their singular generous benefactor has passed on, retired, or has sold a business that provided a significant portion of the income for the school.

All the elements of Advancement have to work together.  The difficulty is that Development is a long-term strategy, and, if it is not embraced and implemented, or it is feared that other development initiatives will suffer if a school’s development initiatives are successful, then hopes for the school can be dashed.

The case could be made that schools of this nature could become Diocesan schools, funded in part by contributions to Catholic Charities rather than by tuition dollars.  Would such a proposal be threatening to the traditional programs offered by Catholic Charities?  I think you know the answer.

To expect these schools to function simply as do schools which are located in affluent areas or in schools where sociological strata are well-mixed is to set the school up to fail, not because they are more affluent, but because they may have the affluence to survive if several of the five elements of Advancement are not in place.  Even Catholic schools in traditionally affluent areas are having difficulty surviving today because they have not embraced and successfully implemented the five elements of Advancement.  If they are having difficulty, how can we expect those in more precarious positions to fare better?

If we are clear about what the “mission” is, then how is that mission achieved?  As in any other school, the “how” is answered by a “vision” narrative – not just a vision statement.  From an organizational standpoint, it is the vision which determines the mission.  The vision paints the picture of the organization’s goal, and the mission is the present articulation of that vision.  From www.bnet.com:

“Creating a vision is one of the most challenging tasks undertaken by a team or organization. “Vision” refers not to a few simple phrases, but rather the complete articulation of the future state — the values, processes, structure, technology, job roles, and environment…Effective and actionable visions are created when the right combination of individuals comes together to form an optimistic and energized team, clear objectives exist, and the scope for the project is well defined and understood.”  (Source: http://jobfunctions.bnet.com/abstract.aspx?scname=Mission+and+Vision&docid=73047&tag=content;col1, accessed 5/25/2010)

In order to develop a well-articulated vision, however, school leaders need to begin with the reasons that a school needs to exist in these communities.  These reasons need to be ingrained into thoughts, speech and writings of those individuals leading and supporting the school, creating a case for the school.  This case statement can be used in the creation of development proposals such as appeals, grantwriting, and planning giving initiatives.

When you start with “Why” rather than with “What,” the “How” flows forth from it, rather than trying to construct multiple “How” strategies in an attempt to support “What” you have.