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CATHOLICS-EDUCATION May-10-2010 (650 words) With photos posted May 7. xxxn

Catholic education is in 'mission confusion,' says longtime educator

Students from Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, Md., wave pompoms last September to celebrate their school being named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. (CNS/Leslie E. Kossoff, Catholic Standard)

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic education is in a state of "mission confusion" as the number of schools shrinks along with the student population, according to a longtime Catholic education executive.

"We are in very, very serious trouble," said Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, the outgoing superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Washington.

She is taking a position as executive director at the Center for Catholic Education at Boston's Lynch School of Education to work on approaches to stem the problems.

The downward trend in numbers results from "the consequences of making decisions -- and the consequences of not making decisions, which has been happening for a long time," Weitzel-O'Neill said May 7 during "A Washington Briefing for the Nation's Catholic Community," co-sponsored by Trinity Washington University and the National Catholic Reporter weekly newspaper.

"I'm stirring the pot," she acknowledged, but "we're on a very slippery slope."

One issue, according to Weitzel-O'Neill, is the presumed target audience for Catholic elementary and high schools. Schools in city centers are increasingly closing their doors, shutting out a potential immigrant and non-Catholic student body. "We lose our chance at evangelizing them," she said.

"We closed all those schools in the '80s and we never replaced them," Weitzel-O'Neill said.

More and more, affluent families are targeted to enroll their children in Catholic schools. In the Washington Archdiocese, the average elementary school tuition is $7,000 a year, and the least expensive Catholic high school's tuition is $11,000; some schools charge as much as $30,000.

The "parish model" of school sponsorship has grown less workable over the years, Weitzel-O'Neill said. In a past generation, sisters taught at and ran Catholic schools for "nothing or next to nothing," she added, noting that today's lay teachers still aren't paid a just wage, "though we're getting better."

Weitzel-O'Neill decried teachers' unions, which she described as responsible for bottling up state and federal legislation that would permit public money to given to nonpublic schools. Saying the unions' motivation was preserving the jobs of public school teachers, she added, "It isn't about the adults. It's about the kids."

Another "big question" posed by Weitzel-O'Neill: "Gay couples -- should they be allowed to send their children to Catholic schools? Because in (the Archdiocese of) Denver they were told they were not," she said, alluding to a situation in March in which a lesbian couple were told that the two children they are raising would not be permitted to re-enroll at a parish school in Boulder, Colo. "Is it about the kids or the adults?" she asked.

Weitzel-O'Neill said vigorous support for Catholic education is lacking from both parents and pastors. Parents, she said, believe their children get a satisfactory education in suburban public school districts, while a growing number of pastors never attended Catholic schools themselves.

When Weitzel-O'Neill started her job in Washington eight years ago, the archdiocese had 114 grade and high schools. Now the number is 96, including seven schools in the District of Columbia that changed to charter schools in 2008. "It's probably one of the most horrible things I've ever done, to stand in front of poor people and tell them we don't have enough money to keep the school going," she said.

The slide is mirrored nationwide, as Catholic schools have closed at the rate of better than 100 a year over the past 50 years, with 5,645 fewer Catholic schools operating now than in 1960, according to figures from the National Catholic Educational Association.

Meanwhile, what Weitzel-O'Neill termed "faux Catholic schools" are springing up, led by those who have been in the Catholic home-schooling movement. She showed the home page to a website for a Pope John Paul II Academy in a suburban section of the Archdiocese of Washington, which has no connection with the archdiocese, despite entreaties by archdiocesan officials that the school seek some sort of connection. "They're teaching the Catholic faith, but they're not approved by any bishop," she added.


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