“And, it was free.”

That is a quote from the following story from STLToday that relates how a charter school leasing space from Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in Southwest St. Louis City is, ironically enough, gaining many new students from among those who dropped out of their Catholic parochial schools in order to enroll.

Archbishop Carlson has emphasized the need for vibrant Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese, and rightly so.  I have previously posted on that subject to agree with that proposition, and to agree with His Grace’s point that in order for these to flourish, they must be authentically Catholic in curriculum and culture.

“And, it was free.”– this sentiment sums up the current challenge posed by the presence of the Gateway Science Academy on the grounds of Epiphany parish.  It boils down to this: if the only difference between the public school and the Catholic school is the cost, then of course the Catholic school will be less attractive to prospective students and their parents.

During the last twenty or so years, the Archdiocese, faced with the loss of Catholic identity in the city, in terms of numbers of Catholics who left and the lack of fervor of those Catholics who remained, has been consolidating and reorganizing students into fewer and fewer Catholic parish schools.  This hasn’t been a Sherman-is-at-the-city-limits-of-Atlanta-type bugout; it is more like the gradual-withdrawal-of-French-and-US-forces-from-Vietnam-type inevitability.

Leaving aside particular causes for the closures– and I think that one could make a decent argument for each and every closure from a purely bottom-line perspective– the fact remains that when a parish loses a long-time school, it affects the parish in a negative way.  And this effect is deeply felt.

Epiphany could no longer support a parish school.  But there remained the school buildings, the gym, the iconic bowling alley, and the fields where hundreds upon hundreds of children played.  They linger like the ghost of Christmas past.  They are a constant reminder that the familiar system that formed so many Catholics has at last failed.  That is a huge blow to the confidence of a parish.

I know that the school is not the core of a parish.  The Eucharist is the source and summit of the faith.  But the loss of a parish school casts that particular pall over a parish, from which it is hard to recover.

In this case, Epiphany decided to lease to Gateway Science Academy.  From many perspectives, this made perfect sense.  The lease would bring money, that would help keep the parish viable.  The school buildings would be in use, with children lending their unique vitality to the campus. Who knows, maybe some of the non-Catholic students might be intrigued by the parish nearby and be interesting in exploring the faith.

But there are always unintended consequences, however, and what has happened is far different, at least so far.

As the article relates:

Parents by the hundreds packed into the auditorium at Epiphany of Our Lord Catholic Church this summer to hear about Gateway Science Academy, a charter school opening on church grounds.
As teachers and school backers spoke into a microphone, Kristine Monti started to ponder whether to pull her two children from the Catholic school in their parish. Gateway Science was appealing, Monti said — the teachers’ youth, enthusiasm, its after-school clubs and approach to academics. The student body would mostly come from the neighborhood — another plus, she said.

And, it was free.

The next day, Monti called Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School. She requested a tuition refund and enrolled her son and daughter at Gateway Science, a publicly funded school with no religious affiliation.

Dozens of other Catholic families with children in south St. Louis parish schools did the same, withdrawing 80 students from schools including St. Joan of Arc, St. Ambrose, St. James the Greater and St. Frances Cabrini — schools already struggling with fewer students and a tough economy. Now those schools faced losing tens of thousands of dollars in tuition payments to a school leasing space, at $10,000 a month, from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Instead of drawing non-Catholics to Epiphany, it is drawing Catholics out of the parochial schools.  Why? 

I ask again, if the only difference between the public school and the Catholic school is the cost, why wouldn’t the free school win out?

“All of a sudden, boom,” said Monsignor Michael Turek, the pastor at St. Joan of Arc and dean for the South City deanery. “Quite frankly, it blew our budget out of the water.”

I realize that there are some obvious rejoinders to the proposition.  First, the weakest Catholic school, one may argue, is more conducive to a total formation of a child than a public school, which is more subject to the whim and novelty of government-mandated social programming.  Next, one could point out that the parents’ Catholic faith may not be very strong to pull them out of the parish school so readily.

These points, even if containing some truth, beg the obvious questions:  How did the parents’ formation go so wrong?  Why aren’t they Catholic “enough”?  What were they taught about the faith?  Is the school Catholic enough to justify the increasing tuition costs?

Are our schools indeed Catholic?  If so, they are worth the sacrifice to support, and if not, they are not.

People will vote with their feet.

Their departure exacerbates declining enrollment in the city’s parochial schools. Enrollment has dropped to 4,017 this year, down from 6,653 in the 2000-01 school year. The number of parish elementary schools in the city also has dropped, to 18 from 27, according to the archdiocese.

Some parents said their decision to leave Catholic schools for Gateway was purely financial. The annual tuition for multiple children could exceed $12,000 a year and left no money for much else, including college, they said.

Christi Nigl, who had been sending her children to St. Joan of Arc, said a private high school was out of the question, she said. “When you’re looking at $10,000 for high school, that’s a lot of money.”

Something has to change.

 Continue reading:  Charter school leasing space from archdiocese draws Catholics