By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Diocesan School Superintendent Dr. Dan Peters would rather take a punch in the gut than to close a school.
“When I got here (in 2010), my goal was to stabilize that situation. I haven’t done it yet,” he told The Catholic Key.
But he hasn’t given up hope, nor will he decrease his efforts. After all, he remains convinced, after spending his life in public education including as superintendent of a Kansas school district, of the value of Catholic education, both to the church and to society at large.
“We’ve have some challenges, and we’ve had to close two schools last year (Christ the King Elementary School in Kansas City and St. Mary’s High School in Independence),” he said.
“We got to the point where the schools couldn’t support themselves financially, even with the heroic efforts on the part of the parishes and the diocese,” Peters said.
But the product remains as strong as ever, he said.
“Our test scores are very, very high across the board,” he said. “Our Strong City schools (Holy Cross, Our Lady of the Angels and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Kansas City) are still posting very high scores even when their public school counterparts aren’t while drawing from the same set of students.
“And our kids are getting formed in the Catholic faith at a very high level,” Peters said.
But even as strong as Catholic schools are, the goal is to get even better.
“We have several things going on,” Peters said.
“Right now, we are standardizing our curriculum in science and math with a committee of administrators and teachers all the way from kindergarten to senior in high school,” Peters said.
Not only will every child in every Catholic school be assured of receiving the same instruction, but it will make that instruction stronger, Peters said.
“With a standardized curriculum, you can do staff development across the board,” he said. “We can compare ourselves to each other — ‘What can I learn from you to make ourselves better?’ We can assure that what we are teaching kids is consistent throughout the whole diocese.”
Peters also said that all schools are also moving to a standardized, computerized information system for grades, attendance reports and test scores that will be secure, but accessible to those who need the information across the diocese.
But he is not ignoring the elephant in the living room. Catholic education is becoming increasingly difficult to finance as it continues to meet the goal — the only goal possible — of high quality education for the 21st Century.
“If you look at the schools that have closed, they were once in affluent areas where the potential for support from the parish funds could work,” Peters said.
The demographics of the area, both in terms of an aging population and affluence, changed over time, he said.
“Once an area becomes poorer, what ends up happening is that the parish’s ability to fund them is diminished and the ones that are the poorest are the ones who have to charge the highest tuition to make up for it,” Peters said.
Conversely, he said, the areas where diocesan schools remain the strongest are in those areas where families are young with children to meet enrollment goals, and parish tithing is high.
But still, he looks at the sacrifices both parents and parishes are making to keep Catholic schools alive and he marvels.
“Look at our Strong City schools,” he said. “For some of those parents to give up $2,000 a year to send their kids to a Catholic school is heroic.”
He particularly praised Jeremy Lillig, director of the diocesan Strong City and Bright Futures fund, for his efforts in keeping those schools open.
“He’s doing a great job,” Peters said. “He has gotten grants. He has solicited big donors. He has gotten people to donate in-kind services.”
He also praised administrators and teachers for their sacrifices in keeping the cost of Catholic education as low as possible.
“It’s not like we have huge amounts of money to spend,” he said. “We spend generally about half of what our public school counterparts spend, and in some cases a third. A lot of that is because our teachers are so dedicated and willing to work for less salary (than public schools pay).”
Peters admitted that he has no magic wand to wave that will secure the future of Catholic education forever. But at the same time, he is certain that the challenge can be met.
“We have caring parents, caring parishes, caring staff and great kids who need our support and help,” he said.
“They (the children) are a blank slate that needs to be filled. We are going to fill it right, and unlike public schools who can only fill one corner, we are going to fill the whole slate,” he said.
“But it is getting harder and harder to sustain Catholic education as we know it now,” Peters said. “Somehow, we’re going to have to find a way to break that pattern. And we will.”