At one time, parish schools formed the basis of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Served by religious sisters, parish schools thrived, drawing students from within the parishes’ boundaries and expanding with new buildings or additions to handle the crowd. If expansions weren’t enough, new parishes and schools popped up for the growing population in the post-World War II Era.
But those days are no longer. With end of the “baby boom” in 1964 and the decrease in vocations in recent decades, enrollment has fallen precipitously in Catholic schools. But declining enrollment isn’t just a problem in Catholic schools. Public schools are feeling the pinch, too, in all areas of education — elementary through university.
Parish schools no longer work in all cases, with many having to reduce programs or close entirely.
Rather than await school closings, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has been striving to make Catholic education sustainable in the 21st century by developing a new partnership model of governance to address the shortcomings of the parish model.
Parishes in south St. Louis and north St. Louis County already are cooperating with new school systems to enhance Catholic education in their areas: South City Catholic Academy in the city, and All Saints Academy in Florissant. In addition, Holy Cross Academy in southwest St. Louis County has been thriving since 2012.
A total of 10 parishes collaborate to make the three school systems — five for Holy Cross, three for All Saints and two for South City. The roster of cooperating parishes would double to 20 with the addition of 10 parishes (six have schools now) working together in a regional Catholic school system for the Washington Deanery. After seven months of meetings, the Washington Area Steering Committee has recommended to the 10 pastors that the parishes form a regional school system. Pastors currently are studying the proposal, seeking input from the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and Formation, parishioners, parents and educators as to how that will look in terms of programs, finances and facilities.
There’s strength in numbers, and combining efforts and resources looks to be a win-win for students and parishes. Face it; many “parish” schools today are actually regional schools, drawing students from outside parish boundaries. In a family’s school shopping, if a neighboring parish school has a program or offering that interests a child, that student might go there instead of the local parish school. In addition, the St. Louis area has some strong public schools, with parents choosing for economy: free vs. $3,000-$5,000 for grade school, or free vs. at least $9,000-$10,000 for high school.
“Free” sounds good, especially if public schools offer programs that Catholic parish schools do not, such as the sciences, technology or liberal arts such as music or drama. Catholic schools add the R (religion) and A (arts) to STEM for STREAM, giving science, technology, engineering and math their meaning: the beauty of God’s creation. But if the schools don’t have or can’t afford STEM, RA is not going to cut it.
But when the archdiocese adds the funds and resources, partner parish schools supply more and better programs that parish schools either might not be able to afford or might afford only at the expense of parish programs and ministries. Without the sole expense of a running school — now shared with other parishes — a parish might be able to afford adult religious education or youth ministries, for instance.
Regional Catholic school systems and collaboration among parishes are part and parcel with the Catholic faith in the modern era. We’re all one body of Christ, right?