250 reflect on findings of Catholic schools study

Photo Caption: Bishop Jenky is pictured among the 250 representatives of the diocesan Catholic school community discussing long-range planning Sept. 13 in Peoria.

By: By Jared Olar

Now halfway through an 18-month long-range planning study, the Catholic school community of the Diocese of Peoria took time Saturday to reflect on what the study’s findings are saying about the future of Catholic education in central Illinois.

About 250 school principals, teachers, school staff, parish pastors and education commission members participated in a four-hour “key findings consultation” that started at 10 a.m. at St. Vincent de Paul Parish hall in Peoria.

“We inherit a great Catholic education system, but for planning for the future, we have to be ready to change, to be ready to do even some painful things,” said Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, as he welcomed the educators.

For future vitality, Catholic schools must “not cling to things that don’t work,” the bishop said.

Diocesan schools also must not be Catholic in name only, but need an “intentional Catholic ethos,” Bishop Jenky said. “We are ‘Catholic’ schools essentially so that these institutions will be evangelizers.”

The diocese’s planning initiative, with a theme of “Renewing Our Mission: Planning for Our Future,” started in January and is being conducted by Meitler Consultants Inc. The study’s key findings were presented by two of Meitler’s senior consultants, Sister Mary Anne Heenan and Sister Kathleen Carr.

Sister Mary Anne and Sister Kathleen are members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a religious community that first came to the Diocese of Peoria as teachers about 150 years ago.

Sister Mary Anne reviewed data she and Sister Kathleen had gathered in recent months as they surveyed and visited diocesan schools.

“As we’ve been around, we’ve seen a lot of good things happening in your schools, so you are planning from a position of strength,” said Sister Mary Anne.

Those strengths, including distinctly Catholic educational environments and strong academics, will help the diocese’s schools deal with several challenges they will face in the coming years, she said.

Chief among those challenges is one that continues to affect every diocese in the United States: declining Catholic school enrollment.

Among the study’s key findings is that enrollment has dropped 11 percent in the Diocese of Peoria since 2002-2003, compared to a nationwide average decline of 14 percent in the same period.

“While we’re concerned about the decline, it has not been as steep a decline as it has been in this region of the country or nationwide,” Sister Mary Anne said.

High school enrollment, however, has increased 2 percent since 2002-2003, dipping in the intervening years but now rebounding.

Of infants baptized diocese-wide in 2000, 35 percent were attending the second grade at the parish school in 2007. Also, there were 10 percent fewer infant baptisms in the diocese in 2007 than in 2002.

Enrollment issues have an impact on Catholic school finances.

“A lot of people look at our finances and say, ‘That’s our problem.’ To me that’s a symptom of our problem,” said Sister Mary Anne.

In the Diocese of Peoria, an average of 44 percent of a parish’s ordinary income (which includes Sunday collection income as well as school fundraising projects) goes to support the parish schools and high schools.

“That’s not sustainable on the long term,” Sister Mary Anne commented, “because you see that ordinary income has gone up 10 percent in recent years, while inflation has gone up 16 percent in the same period,” with operating costs outpacing income.

Looking at the total size of the Catholic student body in the Diocese of Peoria, the grade schools and high schools are currently at 71 percent of their capacity. Sister Mary Anne said a school should be at or near 90 percent capacity to ensure it is on a good footing financially.

After the presentation of the key findings, the participants had a “working lunch,” during which they answered three questions, providing their answers to the Sisters as additional study feedback. The questions were:

l What three things do you most value about the Catholic school with which you are associated?

l What do you see as the five most critical challenges facing schools in the Diocese of Peoria in the next five years?

l What specific things should be done to successfully respond to these challenges and ensure the long-term viability and vitality of Catholic school education in the Diocese of Peoria?

The educators were also given copies of a draft vision statement for diocesan schools. As a “homework assignment,” they were asked to consider three additional questions and to discuss them in their parishes. They will turn in their responses to the diocesan Office of Catholic Schools by Monday, Oct. 13. Those questions are:

l Does the draft vision statement reflect the essential characteristics of quality Catholic schools for the future? If not, what should be added or omitted?

l What specific steps should be taken locally and diocese-wide to successfully respond to the challenges facing Catholic school education and ensure its long-term viability and vitality in the Diocese of Peoria?

l What must your school do to remain viable and vital?

The meeting generated beneficial information, positive energy and useful input, according to Brother William Dygert, CSC, diocesan superintendent of schools.

“There was no doubt that people were listening very carefully. You could tell by their demeanor. You could have heard a pin drop throughout the morning presentation,” said Brother William.

“Hopefully the people will take the information the Sisters gave them back with them and start conversations in their own parishes,” Brother William said.

All feedback gathered will help the Meitler consultants prepare draft recommendations. A consultative meeting on those recommendations is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the new Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria.

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