Charter schools, only 20 years old, are on the rise across America as parents and students try to escape failing public schools. The growth in charter schools has hit Catholic schools especially hard, as education historian Diane Ravitch noted, “Where charter schools are expanding, Catholic schools are dying.” Instead of fearing the rise of Charter schools, Catholic schools should learn from their innovative practices.
Parents who once preferred Catholic schools to the failing public system are abandoning Catholic schools en masse. This coming school year (2012-2013), more American elementary and secondary school students will enroll in charter schools than Catholic schools for the first time.
Charters have grown precisely because they took some of the best practices of Catholic schools – uniforms, discipline and high expectations – and applied them zealously. Now, Catholic schools should adopt some of the best practices used by charters to stage a comeback.
Milwaukee’s Catholic schools have a special opportunity to lead reform. Starting in the fall of 2013, one of the most innovative charter school networks, Rocketship Academy of San Jose, Calif., will open its first franchise in Milwaukee.
Rocketship plans to open eight in total and enroll 4,000 students in the coming years. Rocketship’s model has improved student outcomes dramatically, especially for English language learners. More important, Rocketship spends half as much per pupil than traditional schools.
Milwaukee is one of the few jurisdictions in the United States with a long-standing voucher program for the city’s neediest students. If Catholic schools adopt and execute these charter best practices, taxpayers and students would be better off as Catholic schools educate more children for less money.
Catholic schools need to start thinking more like a business. Parents, teachers, parishioners and donors are all customers and want to be served. Paterson (N.J.) Diocese Schools Superintendent John Eriksen advises Catholic schools to embrace the market-driven mind-set because it works, “a much more effective mantra than ‘We’re poor; give us money,’ is ‘We serve the poor. Invest in us, and we’ll provide a good return on your investment.’ ”
Catholic schools’ “customers” expect schools to deliver a high-quality education and strong religious instruction. New learning models developed by charter schools are using technology to customize lesson plans to student needs. Thus far, they have been delivering academic dividends.
One K-8 Catholic school in San Francisco, Mission Dolores Academy, has seen math scores jump 16% and reading proficiency increase by 6% using customized learning software. Mission Dolores also saw per-pupil costs fall by 10% in one year and expects another 10% drop in operating costs this coming school year.
These learning platforms track student progress toward mastery and provide teachers with useful real-time data to intervene immediately when a student falls behind and tailor instruction to the student’s needs. Since each student learns at his or her own pace, they see their own progress in real-time as they master concepts instead of waiting for the next standardized test.
Catholic schools that are performing well often do a poor job marketing their success. Here again, charters have a lot to teach Catholic schools. Charter schools advertise their success, use current students and parents as ambassadors and ask for stakeholder feedback, Catholic schools rarely do. In Boston, a survey of Spanish speaking parishioners revealed almost half of the families attending mass did not even know there was a Catholic school nearby.
Even a small investment in marketing can pay off big as Saint Stanislaus in East Chicago, Ind., found out. With a few $90 radio ads and weekly notices in the parish bulletin, school enrollment skyrocketed so much so that the principal had to put more desks in every class to accommodate the new students.
Business-minded Catholic schools also need to increase transparency. Most parents don’t recognize that educating a student at a Catholic school costs much more than the tuition, often twice as much. Parents need to know what the school is spending their tuition dollars on so they can see the value they are getting.
Donors, too, need to see their money is being spent wisely, not just plugging holes in the school budget. According to Leo Linbeck, a Texas-based philanthropist who has given to both charter and Catholic schools in the past, “There’s billions out there in private philanthropy for Catholic education, there’s just no money to fill structural deficits.”
Last year, 167 Catholic schools nationwide closed permanently due to low enrollment and unsustainable business models. Charter schools are picking up some of the slack. Catholic schools should look to charter school best practices to sustain and turnaround Catholic schools on the brink of closure.
Sean Kennedy is a visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., and author of the recent study “Building 21st Century Catholic Learning Communities: Enhancing the Catholic Mission with Data, Blended Learning, and Other Best Practices From Top Charter Schools” released in July. Kennedy is a graduate of Catholic elementary and secondary schools.
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