By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle
A parish school is more than classrooms and teachers doling out homework. It’s an extension of the church, a kind of home away from home where students learn to connect their faith with what is being taught.
But what happens when a school finds itself in financial straits, with enrollment and rising expenses? How can it stay viable? For St. Charles Borromeo School, viability was a real concern.
St. Charles Borromeo Parish was founded in 1947 in the rapidly growing area north of the Missouri River. It was the first Catholic parish in the area, and the school that opened in 1965 was the first Catholic grade school. As time passed, six new parishes formed out of St. Charles, some with schools, and St. Charles parish and school populations began to ebb and flow.
Enrollment peaked in the mid 1960’s; soon after its founding, 1,000 students were enrolled. When first St. Therese, then St. Gabriel and St. Patrick opened schools, families wanted their kids in their parish schools, and St. Charles’ student population decreased. In 2006, St. Andrew the Apostle school opened, and St. Charles saw more kids leave to go to school in their home parish. There were long-established covenant agreements with Holy Family and Good Shepherd parishes, but school enrollment never really recovered. Add in another factor: while the new parish schools were opening, so were new public schools, and parents began thinking costs. Public education is free. Also if a student was going to attend a public high school, wouldn’t it make sense to have them attend grade school with the kids they’d have as classmates later? School enrollment dropped annually, but operating costs continued.
The death knell was sounding for a number of reasons: low enrollment, aging facilities needing repairs and upgrades, and the fact that the school was spending more on educating students than was coming in through tuition. Since the 2013 fiscal year, the annual operating deficit has been, on average, more than $240,000. The parish borrowed from its surplus savings to cover the deficits, but 2016 saw those accounts depleted. In fiscal year 2015, the deficit reached more than $334,000, with enrollment still dropping, now at 120 students. The parish sent out an SOS, and a major donor stepped up to cover the deficits for three years, until 2019. By then, both parish and school must be on firmer financial footing.
Father Don Farnan, pastor, Ann Lachowitzer, school principal, parish and school leaders, parents, teachers and students didn’t want the school closing or the parish dying. A major curricular and philosophical renovation was necessary. The team, headed by Father Farnan and Lachowitzer, researched, brainstormed and formed a sustainability committee to conduct a viability study. The study was completed, a summary compiled in mid-January 2017, and the renovation plans were presented to parents Feb. 2.
Along with plans to increase enrollment, raise funds for capital improvements to the school and the church, a major change in the educational approach was announced. St. Charles School will have a “rebirth as a classical liberal arts academy.” Classical education refers specifically to the language and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, with the objective of seeing and embracing goodness, beauty and truth, much like the goal of Catholic education.
A classical education is meant to help students learn critical thinking, how to think. According to a parent handout explaining the value of a classical education, “It is accessible to all students regardless of background or perceived aptitude.” Instructors employ all methods appropriate to the age and ability of their students. Experience proves the progression from grammar to logic, and then to rhetoric is well-suited to the elementary student’s developing abilities.
The program includes reading more primary sources of history rather than merely textbooks and, in English classes, reading historical novels that tie in with history classes. English ties in with history and history “should be able to carry over to the virtues being learned in religion classes;” it’s all very integrated, states the handout.
Lachowitzer said the key to success in classical education is rigor on the part of the instructors and discipline on the part of the students. “When these two meet, excellence – what the Greeks called arête – is the result.”
Classical educational will begin this fall, with new religion and language curricula, and will affect kindergarten through fifth grades more than the middle school, at first. For example, grades 3 – 5 will have new curriculums in religion, language arts and Latin. Lachowitzer said that research has shown that kids who have studied Latin in grade and high school score higher on the SAT tests and “consistently lead the U.S. in verbal and quantitative reasoning.” After all, she said, “English is 65 percent Latin-based!”
Eighth graders got a taste of what the lower grades will begin next semester. In a cross curricular project, Karla Prewitt engaged her class in finding the connection between faith and science, completing a research paper on a scientist and his or her connection with faith. They also learned quotes from their scientists and recited them to Bishop Johnston during his school visit several weeks ago. Some quotes include:
“The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole, in that the universe appears to have order and promise” (Arno Penzias – Physicist;)
“The book of nature, which we have to read, is written by the finger of God.” (Michael Faraday – Scientist;)
“In the last few years, astronomy has come together so that we’re now able to tell a coherent story of how the universe began. … does not contradict God, but instead enlarges the idea of God.” (Joel Primack – Physicist).
Quotes were also from Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and other scientists.
Lachowitzer assured the parents at the Feb. 2 meeting that although the school’s name would change along with the educational style and philosophy, it would still be a diocesan school — “an important part of who we are.” Tuition and fees will remain the same, she said, the only change will be adding the SCRIP fundraising component. A name hasn’t been chosen. Lachowitzer said Charles or Borromeo would likely remain in the name of the new academy. School families will probably vote on a new name. The Charger mascot will remain.
The school building will get a face lift and some interior upgrades, and the church a new roof, she said.
Lachowitzer agreed that the curriculum will be challenging, but will give a solid foundation for lifelong learning and critical thinking. She added, “Father Don wants our kids to be ‘smart, wise and holy’ as they navigate through life. We’re looking forward to excellence.”