Catholic Schools on Verge of ‘Renaissance’

Religious institutions see more investment, new leadership, innovative governance

Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Pennsylvania / Facebook)

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Inner-city Catholic schools are entering a period of improved performance and growth, according to a new report produced by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

The group’s report outlines the way in which Catholic schools, with the help of donors, are amending their governance structure to offer parents an alternative to government-funded public schools.

The report, entitled "Catholic School Renaissance," chronicles the changes that have been made to Catholic schools across the country.

"New approaches to organizing, governing, funding, and staffing these schools are showing that this sector can be financially sustainable, in addition to producing terrific student outcomes. Donors of all faiths, and even no faith, are participating—recognizing the valuable things that Catholic schools do for the nation, in particular by educating inner-city children who have been failed by many other sectors," the report said.

The director of the K-12 program at the Philanthropy Roundtable, an organization that connects donors to educational and other types of projects, said that donors are interested in supporting Catholic schools because of the beliefs and interest in the development of character that these institutions market.

"The teaching of the faith and how that is integrated and woven through [the curriculum] is really the secret sauce," Anthony Pienta, who played an integral role in producing the report, said.

Pienta pointed to two networks in Philadelphia profiled in the report that illustrate how new leaders, with the support from donors, have worked "professionalize the [Catholic school] sector."

The first, called the Independence Mission Schools, was formed in 2012 by local businessmen who created a nonprofit to take over 15 Catholic campuses that were failing in the city’s poorest communities.

Each school still receives support from the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools, but the larger nonprofit organization has the authority to make changes. Each student that the network serves comes from a low-income background, and enrollment is growing.

This network and the Faith in the Future Foundation, a group of 21 Catholic high schools and special education schools in Philadelphia also formed in 2012, are run like charter schools but maintain the religious aspect of Catholic education.

Casey Carter, the CEO of the Faith in the Future Foundation, developed what he called a "new operating and business model" for the Catholic schools, according to an interview included in the guidebook. While the archdiocese controls the schools’ curricula, the foundation oversees fundraising, marketing, expansion, and other business operations.

"These schools are becoming a really good option," Pienta said, predicting that Catholic schools will expand with the growth of school-choice programs. He added that private Catholic schools and charter schools, the latter of which get public funding but operate outside of the government’s established public school system, will increasingly be seen as "allies" in the modern education world as parents turn to new options for their kids.

The report claims that Catholic schools are important because they maintain "operational flexibility" that government-funded schools lack, and have the freedom to incorporate religious and moral lessons into their curricula.

"Catholic schools are free of constraints related to educator certification, union rules, content standards, time requirements, and much more," the report said. "Catholic schools are also able to include religion and moral instruction within their activities. Faith and character development has been at the heart of Catholic schooling since its beginning, and remains an essential complement to academic development."

Pienta emphasized the need for donors to invest in Catholic schools, pointing to the Drexel Fund and other projects that provide financial support to Catholic campuses countrywide. The Drexel Fund, the report said, is a "philanthropic pool" opened just this year that will provide venture capital to expand Catholic schools in multiple states.

"Donors have a huge responsibility to help the sector become better," Pienta said.

Morgan Chalfant   Email Morgan | Full Bio | RSS
Morgan Chalfant is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Free Beacon, Morgan worked as a staff writer at Red Alert Politics. She also served as the year-long Collegiate Network fellow on the editorial page at USA TODAY from 2013-14. Morgan graduated from Boston College in 2013 with a B.A. in English and Mathematics. Her Twitter handle is @mchalfant16.

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