Catholic school comeback in Philly!

A few years ago, I met Samuel Casey Carter at an event promoting a charter school network. At the time, Carter had just been hired by Archbishop Charles Chaput to join him in an effort to renew the Catholic high schools in Philadelphia, where scores of schools were closing for lack of students and money.

Carter was called in to help renew and rebuild the nation’s oldest Catholic school system that was in deep crisis, and to pass on the greatness of Catholic education to future generations. Five years later, he has done just that.

I recently talked with Carter to ask a few questions about this comeback in Philly. Among the many things he pointed to, it was a return to mission that seemed to be the biggest key. And, in order to have the freedom to live the mission in each school, plenty of business items needed attention. Carter knew that without that in place, there was no hope for the mission to be effected with confidence and acceptance.

Carter—years ago a member of The Cardinal Newman Society’s board of directors—is the CEO of Faith in the Future, the organization that took over organizational responsibility of 17 high schools and four schools of special education by agreement with the archdiocese in 2012. After initial successes, the contract was extended through 2022. Carter will be moving on, leaving the organization in a great position.

Faith in the Future has relied on a three-step plan to strengthen and renew the nation’s oldest Catholic school system: governance, organization, results.

Governance

The plan, as implemented, might be simply described in terms of versions. Faith in the Future 1.0 was to stabilize the schools. It was at this level that the governance of all the schools needed to be re-thought and implemented.

Over the course of the last few years, the schools have all moved to establishing boards with very few limits on their jurisdiction, allowing for much more local control and the ability to really meet the unique needs of a particular community in which the school operates. Consequently, the school naturally develops in her culture in a way that really meets the community where it is at, in order to effectively educate, form, and evangelize her students.

In addition to the local boards, the organization re-established the archbishop’s absolute control over matters of faith and morals, so that all the schools can be “individually excellent but better together,” as their guiding principle states.

Faith in the Future and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, along with countless donors and business experts, have poured essential resources and wisdom into this corporate adjustment of the schools. The results have been marked. The decline of enrollment is staunched, the money drain has halted, and school spirit has improved markedly on each campus. Most importantly, no more schools closed.

Organization

Faith in the Future 2.0 was about organizing all the elements of each school. Faith in the Future schools are now starting to enjoy the fruits of this organization, standardizing much of what needs to and can be standardized. This helps with efficiency of everything: money, personnel, marketing, etc.

It is here that Faith in the Future was able to address the product—the education and experience that students are receiving in Catholic schools. The Catholic mission is first in the mind of the archbishop and his office of Catholic schools, and Faith in the Future is helping to ensure there is great growth in that area among all the school leaders—and that that filters down into the teachers in the classroom. Parents want to choose Catholic education for the religious and moral tethering it can provide their children in a world that often seems bereft of meaning. This renewal of mission is a great calling card for these families.

Secondly, it is paramount that the schools are striving to achieve a higher level of academic success for their students as well, so the community sees more and more value at the academic level, in addition to the religious and moral environment.

And finally, innovation is at play. The whole structure is set up to meet the needs of each local community, so Faith in the Future is committed to allowing varied programs in order to serve each community in the best manner possible. Whether it is increased technology, expanded parent involvement, or the introduction of Classical Liberal Arts-modeled programs, they are allowing site-based management of schools to serve their unique communities.

Growth

The next phase for Faith in the Future we could call 3.0, or maybe a better moniker would be Three-point-grow. Now that all the structural pieces are in place for sound, mission-based management, the whole system is breathing new life with new excitement. As each school rediscovers her charism, talents, and opportunities, the focus will now be on growth.

As a headmaster, how many times have I listened to conferences on self-esteem which was promoted in a backward fashion? If you keep telling a child he is good, he will believe it and do great. Yet, for a quarter of a century, all my experience has shown that a child really, truly feels great (self-esteem) when he succeeds, honestly, through perseverance and hard work even with several small failures. Granted, this recipe should always include great love and confidence expressed to that child by the teacher. Common sense tells us this, but somehow it has gotten turned around.

So, with these schools in Philadelphia, what they are experiencing are the achievements that come from focus, hard work, and a whole lot of love. That produces great feelings, and growth is a natural by-product of this excellence and love. As the schools grow in excellence, the families and communities will love the school more and more, and that is infectious—others will line up to join.

All indicators point to the fact that Faith in the Future 3.0 will be met with great success. Stay tuned!

Carter summed it up to me nicely when he said, “Ultimately, once we were able to clean up the ‘business’ and management model, the schools were freed up to focus on the academic program of the school—uniquely played out in their particular location for their specific population.”

In so doing, the schools have found a solid footing upon which sound and mission-centered growth can occur. To me, that is certainly a comeback in Philly

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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