Catholic School Matters

August 24, 2020

Figuring it Out

These are anxious times fraught with peril. I’ve yet to talk to a Catholic school leader who isn’t worried—about safety, about enrollment, about retaining teachers or filling positions, about budgets, about responding appropriately to parents—the list goes on. That doesn’t mean we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the struggle. I find it helps to look at the brutal facts to ensure that all Catholic school stakeholders can share the load. And then set your mind to figure it out. We don't have all the answers right now. But we'll figure it out. (repeat ten times slowly when in doubt!)


Two articles will drive home the uncertainty: “The future of Catholic schools in in doubt” in America and “In pandemic, private schools face peril” in Education Next.


I’m ready to close off the list of Catholic schools closing before the start of the year. We had a higher than average number (148) with 100 schools announcing after March 1st. At one point, there was talk that upwards of 10% of Catholic schools could close. That didn’t happen. (Last fall, there were over 6100 Catholic schools.) Why not? I’m certain that the PPP loan program saved quite a few schools. I’m also certain that doomsday numbers were thrown out by certain Catholic school advocates and bishops as political posturing. But I’m also hopeful that the ties to Catholic schools proved stronger than we expected. I’m expecting that the national enrollment won’t drop more than 10% when the numbers come out and I wouldn’t be surprised if the total enrollment is remarkably similar to last year.


However, many families needed more tuition assistance and fundraising has been disrupted so those challenges to the budget will need to be confronted. On top of that, we all fear that prolonged remote learning might result in erosion of more families. What to do?


1. Center your budget discussions on your mission. Remind your stakeholders that you want long-term sustainability but also need to support your families and staff members in this time of need.

2. Build community and faith formation more overtly into your educational programs. Even while in remote learning, try to provide community and faith formation opportunities.

3. Articulate the effectiveness of your remote learning program and its improvements.

4. Use this opportunity to proclaim your value proposition. This is a unique time and you need to find a new way to remind people of your school’s value. Here is our work from May with a uniquely positioned value proposition for uncertain times.

5. I have suggested to principals that they need to produce a FAQ for parents to answer their COVID-related questions. Check out this document to add your questions and borrow ideas for your own FAQ.


A few articles can help you with these efforts. “Why we still need Catholic schools” in City Journal is a great piece by Nicole Garnett, “Made for each other” in the Partnership blog is a super reflection, and my piece “Subsidiarity and innovation” in the Journal of Catholic Education’s COVID special issue should give you a sense of what is different about our schools.


Don’t lose sight of the Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza this summer has opened new doors, perhaps even religious charter schools. We need to keep looking for signs of hope amid the chaos.


More than anything, I think Catholic school leaders need to thoughtful and reflective during these chaotic times. I fear that some school leaders are worried about losing enrollment and making budgets and those worries are becoming the priority. We have to be careful that we are putting safety first. Otherwise, we’ll lose more than enrollment. We’ll lose credibility and trust. I first wrote about these ideas here and found echoes in last week’s Partnership post “Fear, Facts and the Critical Task of Building Trust.” It’s a great piece and worth your time.


We're going to get through this and figure it out.


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Dr. Tim Uhl

For Your Reflection

Catholic School Matters podcast

This week I'm going to release three podcast conversations with school leaders focusing on their efforts to reopen and their struggles to build community amid the chaos. Jenny Oliver, principal of St. Joseph School in Auburn (CA); Br. John Montgomery, principal of Cathedral High in Los Angeles; and Leanne Geise, president of Dominican High School outside Milwaukee will all come on to share their stories of persistence and leadership.


Check out my past episodes from this season:

What I'm Reading

    The Last 5 Books:

    1. Between the World and Me (2015) Ta-Nehisi Coates
    2. Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian (2018 ) by James H. Cone.
    3. The Vision of Vatican II: Its Fundamental Principles (2019) by Ormond Rush
    4. Thea Bowman: Faithful and Free (2019) by Maurice J. Nutt.
    5. With God in America: The Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit (2016) by Walter Ciszek SJ.

            Click this link for a full list of my professional reading

            Past Issues of Catholic School Matters

            Aug 17, 2020 Serenity Prayer

            May 24, 2020 Value Proposition During Uncertain Times


            For previous newsletters, click this link

            Orchestrating Conflict

            Orchestrating Conflict: Case Studies in Catholic Leadership is now available on Amazon or on the Barnes & Noble site in print or e-book formats. The book explores issues in Catholic school leadership and the tensions between building community and following Church policies and introduces deliberate practice as a method for leadership formation. This is my first book and has been an ongoing project for the past couple of years.