There was the economic bubble that seemed like it would last forever. Wiser folks held their breath and waited for the bubble to burst. And it did.
That is the way I feel sometimes about our parish and our parish school. It is strong at the moment and we are surrounded by parishes with schools almost entirely. But can that much saturation last?
The Diocese of Cleveland is the 11th largest diocese in the United States, but it has the 5th largest system of schools instructing approximately 47,000 students. Chicago, which population wise blows Cleveland out of the water, instructs 85,000. So we have a lot of schools.
In some areas the schools are quite concentrated. There are good number of reasons for this. There were once larger families which provided plenty of students for the school. Many ethnic parishes opened schools right around the corner from diocesan parishes with boundaries which would cater to their specific needs. School was once free to extremely inexpensive and more families would attend. It was a practice in the diocese for many years to build a school first and have a church that would later be turned into the school gym when the “real” church was built. All this (and more) added greatly to the number of schools in this diocese.
Many of those factors no longer exist. Not as many families have many children, Catholics have fled heavily populated urban areas, many of the ethnic communities have assimilated into the general population, schooling is expensive, and while there is still an emphasis on Catholic education, it is not what it once was.
Many our schools have red flags about them. The first sign of an ailing school is that the student population falls beneath 200. Around 150 students serious discussions must be made about the future of the school. If more than 25 cents of every dollar in the collection basket goes toward the school budget, caution should be taken. If there is a general trend of falling student numbers over several years, that may be a sign that the school needs great attention. Finally, if there is no plan, no actions being taken to raise student numbers, reach out to the community, advertise the school, make the school more attractive, then one should be worried.
The problem is (and sometimes the great blessing) that our schools are set up as independent system of schools. Nobody wants to be the one that says, “I will close my school so that yours may stay open and healthy,” or “Let us all build a regional school that we will all send our children to and close our schools.”
In the mean time I continue to count my blessings that we have such a strong healthy school and pray that it will continue to be so in the future. But what does the future hold for Catholic education? We are waiting for the pioneer saint to assist us.