GREEN BAY — The Catholic Schools Initiative that was started in the Diocese of Green Bay in 2010 and implemented in 2012 will be drawing to a close in 2017. The process of a new strategic plan, designed to serve the Catholic schools for the next 10 years, is underway.
Kickoff meetings for school administrators, pastors and parish leaders were held on Sept. 28 at Nativity of Our Lord Parish, Ashwaubenon, and Sept. 29 at St. Patrick Parish, Menasha.
“In the diocese, there are 57 (Catholic) schools. What better opportunity do we have than 35 hours per week with children,” said Bishop David Ricken in his opening remarks. “We have to take a new and fresh look.”
The Catholic Schools Initiative set a solid foundation, said Todd Blahnik, assistant director of education. He pointed to four themes that were established by the initiative, including first and foremost, “Catholics schools in our diocese must continue.”
Data from CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) supports the importance of Catholic schools. For example, Mass attendance for millennials (often defined as those who reached adulthood around the turn of the 21st century) is 40 percent for those who attended Catholic schools and only 5 percent for millennials who did not.
“If our Catholic schools disappeared tomorrow the Catholic Church may expect attendance to be well below 10 percent outside Easter, Christmas and Ash Wednesday,” said Blahnik referring to the findings by CARA.
Catholic schools also support vocations according to data from the research center. Fifty percent of priestly vocations come from Catholic schools. CARA also reported that one in four of Catholic school students consider priesthood. Outside of Catholic schools, that number is 1 in 10. Forty-one percent of vocations to religious life come from Catholic schools.
The second established theme is that Catholic schools must be affordable and accessible to all.
“We’ve made some progress, but the challenge is still there,” said Blahnik. “We need to keep trying. There are changing demographics. Today, when you look at the 8 million Hispanic Catholic students that could be in our schools nationwide, there are only 300,000.”
The initiative will also continue to call for the continuation to be good stewards of resources in the form of collaboration and must continue to be rooted in strong Catholic identity.
“At the end of the day, the public schools are perceived as being very solid,” said Blahnik. “We must go back to our roots, why we were founded. That’s what differentiates us.”
Blahnik offered a quote to summarize the need for a new plan.
“The most dangerous phrase in the English Language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ How can we change that? How can we build to the future?” he said.
Meitler Consulting, based in Milwaukee, will facilitate the new planning process. School interviews and site visits will be held at Catholic schools in the diocese from late October through December. Alan Meitler, one of three consultants who will be working with the diocese, offered a guide of discussion topics for the school visits, including healthy schools and Catholic identity, demographics, enrollment, finances and facilities, and academic programming and staffing. He encourages that members of the faculty, administrative team and board members enter discussions before consultants arrive. Blahnik plans to make school site visits in advance of Meitler representatives. Principals are asked to complete a school questionnaire prior to the consultant visit.
Enrollment, one of the topics for discussion, has been on the decline in diocesan Catholic schools. In 2011-2012 there were 7,137 students enrolled in grades K-8. This school year there are 5,895. In the high schools, there were 2,231 students in 2011-2012 and this year 2,049.
“There was a day when families didn’t think of sending their children anywhere else other than the Catholic school,” said Annette Parsons, a Meitler consultant. “Now we have very discerning parents. The faith is not enough of a draw to many.”
A presentation of key findings is expected in January of 2017. Phase 2 of the planning will continue throughout 2017, including a series of sessions to engage school leaders in communities and a Catholic Schools Summit in September of next year. The final plan is scheduled to be announced in October or November of 2017.
A new plan for Catholic schools fits with Bishop Ricken’s call for missionary discipleship in the diocese, said Fr. Dan Felton, vicar general and moderator of the Diocesan Curia.
“We are moving away form strategic planning to mission planning. That’s an important element,” he said. “We are going back to where we started.”
Fr. Felton pointed to his home parish, St. Edward, Mackville, as an example. St. Edward School was established in 1848.
“It was a missionary diocese at that time,” he said. “In Mackville that school became absolutely essential to the growth of the parish, a part of the fabric of the community and that’s how we interacted with the culture that was around us. One-hundred and sixty-six years later St. Edward Catholic School in Mackville still exists.”
As a missionary diocese, the school needs to once again be that missionary place to grow the parish community, explained Fr. Felton.
Catholics need to find “that center where we are going to have followers and friends of Jesus,” he said.