Saving Chicago's Catholic Schools
Can Chicago's Catholic schools be saved from extinction?
For over one century, Catholic elementary and high schools thrived in Chicago’s neighborhoods. A center of life for Catholics throughout the City of Chicago, this dense network of schools serving primarily Polish and Irish families grew to number some 520 and enroll over 330,000 pupils by the early 1960s.
A system which built an impeccable reputation on a strong academic focus and sense of order, students who matriculated through Chicago’s Catholic schools received a character education, learned to read, write, think critically, solve problems every day, and were seated in classrooms in which there were rules and consequences for those who misbehaved. Most important, powerful virtues were strengthened through the study of Catholic theology and the customary exposure to liturgical rite.
However, by the mid-1960s, these beloved parish and high schools which had been supported for decades by devout Catholic families began to experience a dip in enrollment. Over the next several decades, countless schools merged or closed before the free fall stabilized. Today, a system which once seated hundreds of thousands of students in over 500 schools now serves slightly over 50,000 pupils in 162 Archdiocesan schools.
While the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools system remains one of the largest in the nation, it has transformed from a web of schools which intended to preserve Catholicism and provide an educational refuge from the then-Protestant domination of public schools to a shell of its former self, serving fewer Catholics and the underprivileged in an urban setting.
How did Chicago’s Catholic schools crumble? Though the decline has been examined thoroughly, it bears repeating a primary reason for the Catholic schools' slide is found in the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. After three years of intense work, the Second Vatican Council’s reforms influenced a significant shift in Catholic culture, which led to many Catholic families embracing secular schools. Similarly, following Vatican II’s reconstructions, nuns and priests — the free labor in Catholic schools — who had taken vows deserted Catholic orders. Though some nuns and priests did remain, fewer younger adults considered the call to Catholic life and schools were forced to replace departed clergy with lay faculty who required and later demanded higher salaries.
Apart from the consequences attributed to Vatican II, in the early 1960s, the country experienced a demographic shift to which Chicago was not immune. This movement spread Chicago’s Catholic population broadly, with many re-locating to Windy City suburbs. A devastating displacement, this re-settlement to communities outside Chicago severed bonds to city parishes and prevented future generations from supporting the schools which had educated earlier immigrant families. Though the Catholic Church in Chicago maintained a smaller percentage of ethnic white pupils in schools, rising costs to compensate for salaries for lay faculty and staff initially hindered poorer black and Hispanic families from enrolling and filling classrooms, making school closures an annual ritual.
Compounding this problem, the fact Catholics became less devout to the practice of faith, had fewer children, and the Chicago Archdiocese’s poor administration over schools also led to the demise. Moreover, the Church’s mishandling of the scandal of clergy abusing children placed an enormous strain on diocesan finances, further frayed relationships with the flock, and drove some Catholic families from the Church altogether.
Yet even with those contributing factors, disaster was averted as a number of Catholic schools made the necessary corrections, primarily the creation of boards of trustees, tuition adjustments to help cover costs of school operations, and the introduction of permanent development offices to fundraise to ensure schools' long-term solvency.
Fortunately, some schools were able to survive, but the recovery has been agonizingly slow. Though some schools witnessed enrollments stabilize, a special set of challenges to Catholic schools is now emerging. What currently threatens the existence of Catholic schools is manageable and can be resolved only if the right steps are taken. To restore richness, fullness, and meaning to Catholic education, the Archdiocese and Catholic schools must confront athletics engulfing academics, survive competition from charter schools, and curb "woke" insanity infiltrating curriculum.
Participating in high school athletics has manifold benefits. Studies have shown the long-lasting, definitive advantages sports can play in a student’s high school experience, particularly the forging of good character. However, athletics are embedded in Chicago Catholic schools in a way it is in few other schooling systems and the delirium surrounding scholastic sports is so dominant today many Catholic high schools have made athletics the centerpiece of enrollment. An unacknowledged problem, this phenomenon is taking an enormous toll on Catholic schools.
An onerous dilemma which applies more to Catholic high schools than elementary schools, many Catholic high schools have adopted the practice of spending lavishly on athletic facilities. This includes substantial expenditures on fieldhouses, indoor pools, weight-training rooms, and renovation to athletic grounds.
For example: The Chicago Catholic League has a rich tradition in football. Far and away the most expensive sport in a school’s budget, football programs usually employ as many as a dozen or more coaches, many of whom receive stipends. In addition to remuneration for coaching, the cost involved in maintaining a football program can be excessive: Bleachers can eclipse half a million dollars, the installation of field turf hovers around $400,000, and the expense for upkeep to turf or grass fields can surpass $20,000 annually.
To budget for football, many schools also hire full-time strength and conditioning coordinators. While there are benefits to having strength and conditioning professionals involved with young athletes, the specific purpose for the role is to enhance athletic performance and not necessarily to benefit the health and welfare of the entire student body.
The obsession is not only limited to football. Broadly speaking, more Catholic high schools have embraced scheduling athletic competition against out-of-state opponents in numerous sports in the past several decades, causing students to unnecessarily miss class time and pay for a part of their travel expenses.
Worse, still, are the methods some Catholic high schools have adopted to attract students. Though the traditional means of drawing students to enroll once revolved around academic excellence, maintaining strong relationships with neighborhood “feeder” schools, and hosting an Open House to tout a school’s educational philosophy, many Catholic high schools today have created the strategy of leveraging athletic success to lure prospective students. Though an Open House should invite families to learn the distinctions which make a school an extraordinary place of learning, it is fairly common for Catholic high schools to appropriate these opportunities to showcase athletic programs and a school’s extravagant facilities over academic presentations to students.
An Open House, however, is not the only setting which schools exploit to captivate potential students. Outside a school, the drive to register students is every bit as aggressive and often revolves around athletics. Although Catholic high schools employ admission representatives who visit elementary schools and deliver presentations to potential enrollees, Chicago is home to numerous, well-organized youth athletic leagues which often generate great interest among Catholic League coaches. Though these youth leagues emphasize learning the fundamentals and good sportsmanship, many youth games across innumerable sports have become clearinghouses for local Catholic high school coaches who, like a ravenous flock of vultures, descend on the athletic events with the sole purpose of assessing talent for potential admission into a school.
While the passion for athletics — football particularly — has surpassed the mission of Catholic high schools, what is perhaps the most striking consequence of athletics dominating Catholic high schools is the affect it has on financial aid. On average, tuition cost at Chicago’s Catholic high schools for one-year approaches $13,000. A figure which is maintained only through donors’ benevolence or a school’s reliance on the Big Shoulders Fund, tuition assistance was traditionally reserved for the neediest students, mainly lower, middle-class students or the poverty-stricken.
Today, fewer precious dollars which once enabled Chicago’s poorer students to attend Catholic high schools are finding its way into the hands of the needy. According to one donor affiliated with a Chicago Catholic high school, in 2007, 20 percent of students relied on tuition assistance to remain enrolled at the school. By 2021, 80 percent of students were dependent on aid. While two economic crises over the last 13 years certainly play a role in the sharp rise of applicants for tuition assistance, the increase of aspirants seeking admission by availing themselves of financial assistance includes a considerable number of students who are granted admission either cost free or at reduced tuition based on athletic ability. This advantage conferred to gifted athletes has led critics of Catholic high schools renown for athletic accomplishments to face the charge of carrying out a form of recruitment and the offering athletic scholarships and has inspired Illinois’ governing body, the Illinois High School Association, to enact a series of edicts which alter the classification of schools for post-season competition in all sports.
Academics and athletics can co-exist, but never on equal footing. For many decades, one primary mission of Catholic schools was to provide the highest-quality education at the lowest possible cost. However, athletics in Catholic high schools have moved beyond merely clashing with the academic mission of Catholic schools to prevailing over academics. A balance needs to be struck. The failure to keep athletics in proper perspective is the fault of both the Archdiocese and administrators leading Catholic high schools.
In order to find a reasonable solution to this plight, Catholic schools need to return to its original methods of vetting students. Schools must weigh carefully applicants’ commitment to accepting Catholic instruction, entrance examination scores, and a family’s ability to meet tuition cost. Athletics must be deemphasized. Catholic high schools must also carefully re-evaluate how tuition assistance is determined. Though Catholic schools have always emphasized generosity, not all students receiving financial aid are in need, and others, particularly those who are endowed with athletic talent, are indulging themselves of schools’ generosity to the fullest, often at the expense of the deserving and underprivileged.
By doing nothing to contain the madness surrounding sports, Catholic schools are driving away some parents making the decision at which school to enroll their children. Some parents are opting for selective enrollment schools in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The Archdiocese and school administrators need to recognize not all potential students are inclined athletically. The Archdiocese also needs to acknowledge spending unnecessarily on athletic facilities is squandering money and tuition assistance to lure students for the purpose of athletics is a terrible disservice to needier students, is crippling school budgets, and conflicts with Catholic values.
While there is a place for athletics, Catholic high schools have gotten sidetracked and are overlooking the teaching of Catholic identity and academics. The Archdiocese and school administrators need to address and rectify this problem.
It was long an axiom Chicago’s Catholic schools were a promising alternative to the city's chaotic public counterparts. For years Catholics found the Archdiocese-run schools a superior model for educating inner-city children, largely because they had managed to achieve success with low-income students without the benefit of tax dollars and with fewer material resources. A testament to the commitment by the Church, nuns, priests, and laypersons to education, another vital part of the reason Catholic schools were also such a marvelous success is the system enjoyed immunity from paralyzing government bureaucracies and the menace of the Chicago Teachers Union.
However, in the decade after the demographic and economic shifts left Catholic schools struggling to retain students, their high schools continued to abide by its founding principle of offering a rigorous curriculum in a disciplined environment. By the late 1980s, Chicago’s public school system was declared the worst in the nation by then-Education Secretary Bill Bennett. A judgment based on half of Chicago’s public high school students’ scores ranking in the bottom-one percent on the American College Test, Bennett followed his grim outlook with a clarion call for Chicago parents to enroll their children in private schools.
While Chicago’s Catholic schools did not experience a surge of students in the wake of Bennett contending CPS were the nation’s worst, a movement across the country demanding public schools reform crystallized. The wanted and expected maturation of school reform later culminated in the emergence of magnate and charter schools.
Though charter schools are often confused as private institutions, they are independent public schools, open to all children. More important, charters do not charge tuition and can have lengthier school days than schools run by the Board of Education. Unlike magnates, charter schools do not require pupils to submit to either an entrance examination or interview, and the schools are governed by an independent board. Charter schools exist on a legislative contract, a charter, which obliges the school to meet or surpass accountability standards. The charter with the City of Chicago allows such institutions to remain free of governance from the Chicago Board of Education. An important victory for advocates of school choice, charter schools have enormous latitude to be creative with curriculum yet are culpable for student achievement. A network of schools funded by the Chicago Public Schools, today over 100 charter schools operate in Chicago.
Although a function of success was found in the right of parents to choose a school which best met a child’s needs, the triumph of charters is almost entirely owed to the system duplicating the approaches for educating students which Catholic schools had successfully applied for over 80 years. There was a time in which Catholic classrooms were a mix of traditional, rigorous coursework, lofty expectations, and unwavering discipline. As Chicago’s public schools worsened and calls for a better quality of education grew louder, charters merely reproduced the academic model which had for decades flourished in Catholic schools. A plan which paid dividends for parents and students alike, charter schools have risen to become legitimate places of learning and their growth has become competition to the Catholic schools.
Catholic schools once claimed sole ownership over strong academics in Chicago schools. Since Chicago’s first charter school was christened in 1997, the network has grown swiftly to educating over 51,000 pupils a year. This overall enrollment in charters slightly exceeds the approximately 50,000 students seated in Catholic classrooms. Some of the students enrolled in charters were once destined for Catholic schools. Charter schools are now a viable, high-quality alternative to both Chicago’s public and Catholic schools.
For Catholic schools to return to a place in which it can once again offer a superior education to its students, the Archdiocese and its school administrators may want to study, take, and use ideas from the charter system. The success charters have enjoyed is a version of what Catholic schools once were.
Once upon a time, students enrolled in Chicago’s Catholic schools attended to learn the fundamentals of education: Reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students also enrolled in Catholic schools to be exposed to Catholic life, primarily through catechetical instruction. In tandem with the economic and demographic shifts which rocked Catholic schools in the 1960s and 1970s, a second seismic shift, this one triggered by the cultural upheaval of the period, dramatically altered the core curricula offered by Catholic schools.
Though a slower transformation to classrooms, this change in curriculum included discarding the staunch study of the principles of Catholic theology in favor of an amorphous study of all religions. Unsurprisingly, the impact has been staggering: Mass attendance fell steeply, and vocations, devotions, and the fundamental understanding of Catholicism has nearly evaporated among the Catholic educated. A “feel-good” approach to Catholicism, as damaging as the weakening of the study of Catholicism has been on students, a new hazard is now jeopardizing the purity of Catholic education: Woke curriculum.
The miseducation of students, while Catholic schools remain committed to teaching a full range of honors, advanced placement (AP), and college-prep courses, a feature of the pedagogy among some faculty employed by Chicago’s Catholic schools is the swapping of academics and Catholic teaching with gender identity, white privilege, pro-abortion positions, and other contentious social issues.
Like mercury slipping through the cracks, many educators in Chicago Catholic schools have pervaded students’ course work to feature critical race theory, intersectionality, equity, inclusion or other woke messages prominently into the daily life of K–12 schools. Appallingly, no area of curriculum appears untainted by woke pollution of curriculum: History classes promote narratives of “oppression,” and exercises in English literature classes accentuate identity politics. Although professional educators are expected to maintain a pose of strict neutrality in the teaching of class material, educators are known to freely express their progressive political views during instruction and language policing is practiced widely.
The classroom, however, is not the only setting where woke messaging occurs. To fulfill a woke agenda, many schools have approved the creation of co-curriculars such as Diversity, Inclusion, Culture, and Equity, Feminism Committees, and Environmental Clubs. Through these co-curriculars, it is fairly common for schools to extend invitations to Black Lives Matter speakers to address an entire student population or for students to engage in political activity — student walkouts to protest gun violence — at the behest of educators or administrators.
All of this often has the approval of school administrators, many of which espouse DEI statements on school websites and have created full-time Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) directors at the schools. To spread the word of the social-justice movement, DEI coordinators have developed a social-justice, anti-oppression curriculum to affect every area of academic or extra-curricular life to turn out good social-justice soldiers.
Catholic schools have a deep past of accepting students from a broad range of social and ethnic backgrounds and are among the most racially and economically diverse private schools in Chicago. A divisive, poisonous trend which has almost ravaged Catholic education, what is most troubling about wokeness entering the Catholic curriculum is the fact it does not merely distort but directly conflicts with Catholic theology.
The Catholic Church has a far-reaching vision for the purpose of addressing every social issue which affects the human condition. On the issue of defying racism and confronting injustice, core Catholic theology has traditionally offered a powerful and morally sound framework from which students can consider and learn about the solidarity of mankind. While there are elements of the woke movement on which Catholics and social-justice activists are in complete agreement — race and human dignity, for example — the core of Catholic theology addresses these matters, and it is crucial these issues be addressed through a theological rather than a political lens.
While every indicator suggests Catholic schools are engaged in a long-term effort to re-shape students, there is a remedy to the woke nonsense sabotaging Catholic schools: The Archdiocese of Chicago needs to restore the order of Catholic teaching and academics in its schools. Only through the teaching of the Catechism can students truly grasp Catholicism is a more efficacious and persuasive guide to solving moral crises and social conflicts. Sadly, students enrolled in Chicago’s Catholic schools are learning a superficial or hollow form of Catholicism, which often leads Catholic youth to seek solutions to complex moral predicaments in the secular world.
To help students receive a superior education and return Catholic students to a path on which Catholicism remains relevant in their lives, the Archdiocese must be prepared for an unblinking, face-to-face confrontation with administrators, faculty, and parents if necessary. The Archdiocese needs to send a powerful message to its employees and the woke mob behind this toxic curriculum that the promotion of social harmony is best learned through the teaching of Christ.
To faculty, the Archdiocese must carefully screen applicants for positions on faculty by requiring potential employees’ views are consistent with the Catechism and Rome. To parents who support the teaching of wokeness in Catholic schools, the Archdiocese is required to deliver a clear message in no uncertain terms the place for the teaching of politics and theories of justice, sexuality, and gender is not in a classroom, but in the home.
The Archdiocese of Chicago can avert disaster here
For Chicago’s Catholic schools to thrive once again, a return to first principles is in order. Since the first American Catholic school opened in 1783 at Philadelphia, Catholic parents could rely on Church-run schools playing a vital role in their children growing as Catholics. Chicago’s Catholic schools have allowed a serpent into its schools and the serpent’s brood is stinging like an adder. Deceived by the serpent’s cunning, Chicago’s Catholic schools have been led astray.
For Chicago’s Catholic schools to return to achieve the mission of placing Christ at the center of students’ lives calls for the Archdiocese to demand administrators get down to brass tacks and re-create an environment in which learning is paramount and athletics is a secondary concern. Similarly, this requires a return to pedagogic strategies to foster academic success, student well-being, and rejecting support for individuals, groups, or whole movements which espouse views which are in direct conflict with the Catechism. Moreover, it also requires schools to hire educators who embrace pure Catholicism and vow to broaden students’ horizons, not affirm them. Most important, Catholic schools need to tear woke ideology out by the roots and clear classrooms of political poison.
Catholic schools’ legacy of academic and theological excellence is in jeopardy. While Chicago’s Catholic schools may never return to the peak enrollments it enjoyed prior to the 1960s, the schooling system can be salvaged. The system can be restored only if the Archdiocese returns to its original vision for Catholic students: Forming pupils in moral, intellectual, and theological virtues.