Parochial Concerns

St. Louis' network of Catholic elementary schools is becoming smaller, more expensive and more worried about survival

In South St. Louis, the proposed consolidation of St. Pius V and Notre Dame may have a better chance of succeeding because Notre Dame, at Oregon and Gravois avenues, has been the school for five feeder parishes for 30 years. With the addition of the St. Pius V parish, the consolidated school will have six feeder parishes.

But there are clear signs that the archdiocese is abandoning the feeder system in the inner-ring suburban parishes. Last year, both in North County and South County, the archdiocese folded parishes and schools simultaneously, creating one parish and one school where several parishes and several schools once thrived.

Cold demographics drive such moves, says Henry -- and a recognition that the health of the school is linked to the health of the parish itself. As the sizes of parish congregations in the inner-ring suburbs decrease and the average age of the parishioners rises, archdiocese officials realize they can't just consolidate schools and leave the parishes alone as they did in North St. Louis.

Small class size and a multiage curriculum permit individual attention to students by the same teacher for two years.
Mark Gilliland
Small class size and a multiage curriculum permit individual attention to students by the same teacher for two years.
Most Holy Trinity's program of education through music and the arts features violin instruction for all students and teachers.
Mark Gilliland
Most Holy Trinity's program of education through music and the arts features violin instruction for all students and teachers.

"We closed the schools, but the parishes were not part of that planning process.... You can't run a parish with 100 people showing up on Sunday and then maintain [a school]," says Henry.

Decentralization has always been hailed as the main strength of the parochial-school system. But that model only works when parish schools are self-sufficient. As more parochial schools encounter economic difficulty, they need help from the archdiocese, which has been criticized for not doing enough to help troubled schools stay open.

Such criticism was amplified by the recent decision to shut down St. Thomas Aquinas-Mercy High School in North County, adding to the heat the archdiocese faced for shutting down the three South County schools and parishes.

Even as the archdiocese is criticized for closing parish-based schools, it is being slammed for spending money on fancier facilities, such as Cardinal Ritter College Prep, a $26 million school being built in Midtown. Of that total, $8 million came from the archdiocese.

There's a racial component to the Cardinal Ritter criticism. About 70 percent of its students are non-Catholic, and its enrollment is virtually all-African-American. Critics point out that about 5 percent of African Americans are Catholic.

Henry is accustomed to this heat, which he compares to the ill will most people hold for institutions.

"It's a concept like not liking the federal government or the state government," says Henry. "There's something about a bureaucracy of any sort -- that there's evil at the top."

Although the archdiocese does subsidize some of the added expense of pay raises for teachers, parish schools shouldn't expect a financial bailout, says the Reverend Kenneth Brown, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland in the Shaw neighborhood.

"They [the archdiocese] don't have a pot of gold either," says Brown. "I've been too much involved in diocesan level things to know the money isn't sitting there to go out in checks. It just isn't.

"People have this notion that the archbishop is lurking around every corner monitoring everything we do," says Brown. "It's just not true. He entrusts us with the care of our people, the school and the parish, and unless we really mess up, he's not intervening."

The archdiocese often assists individual elementary schools but has been reluctant to set up a regular revenue-sharing plan. It does levy an "assessment" on each parish; the money goes into a central fund that helps finance the eleven archdiocesan high schools. No such fund exists for parochial elementary schools, although money is used to assist schools on a case-by-case basis.

About $1 million goes each year to help about ten schools, and about 60 needy parishes get some level of assistance to help pay teachers' salaries. But this money comes from the Archdiocesan Development Appeal and other funds, not from a pot of money designated for parochial schools.

That leaves parishes with a tough choice: tuition increases that could force some parents to pull their kids from schools.

St. Margaret of Scotland's school has increased tuition by about $500 for next year, kicking it up to $3,250 for the first enrolled child. Like most parochial schools, the tuition for each additional child is much less than that for the first child.

Brown's school has the advantage of having some pockets of upper-middle-class residents, but he worries about the effect of any tuition increase.

"That's a pretty big jump," says Brown. "The people I'm most concerned with in that are the folks who struggle to pay tuition as it is. I don't want us to become a school for the elite or just people who can afford it. It's important that we have that kind of mix in our school. Everybody benefits from that."

The pay increase for teachers has posed a budget challenge for many parochial schools. But Mary Chubb, the head of the Association of Catholic Elementary Educators, says the real problem is a lack of leadership. She favors stronger central control by the archdiocese.

"The hypocrisy is that in our teachers' organization, what we're always told is that the pastor is the employer, he's in charge of the parish, responsible for everything. The archbishop has washed his hands of all that -- which is not the way it is," says Chubb.

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