Our view: Closing schools — especially Seton Keough — is painful, but the archdiocese is preparing for a stronger future with a plan to improve its facilities
The last time the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced the closure of schools, the system was in crisis. Enrollment was in free-fall in the wake of the Great Recession, and painful measures were necessary to keep the system viable. This week, as Catholic leaders announce a much smaller set of cuts, the situation is much different. The moves aren’t about staving off the risk of collapse but about positioning the system for growth. Although we sympathize with the students and staff who will be affected, we are encouraged by the thoughtful approach the archdiocese is taking.
In an interview with The Sun’s editorial board, Archbishop William Lori said that enrollment in the system has stabilized in recent years, allowing for the opportunity to do some strategic thinking about its future. Officials spent the last 18 months studying community demographics, enrollment trends andthe conditions of the school buildings, not with the goal of finding ways to cut but with the idea of determining where the system might best invest. In all, they identified $86 million worth of projects over the next decade, partly to address deferred maintenance but mainly to provide enhanced educational assets. The plan calls for modernized classrooms, libraries and science labs, as well as air conditioning, improved technology and new arts facilities.
The study also identified schools where investment doesn’t makesense, based on declining enrollment and facilities that would be too expensive to bring up to standards. Three schools will close and two will merge, with the savings plowed into investments in the rest of the system. The closure of Seton Keough High School is likely to attract the most attention. An all-girls school that once enrolled more than 1,000, Seton Keough now serves 186 students, which limits the opportunity for the kinds of educational and extracurricular opportunities that would be available at a larger school.
Painful though its closure will be, the archdiocese has clearly learned somelessons about howtomitigate the impact. Thesystem is guaranteeing that all students enrolled in the affected schools will find places in new Catholic schools, if they wish, and will not see an increase in tuition as a result. In 2010, the archdiocese announced the closure of 13 schools in March. This plan, which affects schools with a population of 426 students, 71 of whom will graduate from their current schools this academic year, is being announced in October, giving parents ample time to adjust. That’s particularly important for high school students, who will be able to apply for new placements through the normal process. The archdiocese is also making extensive efforts to help the affected staff find new placements.
Catholic schools are a major part of the Baltimore educational ecosystem, enrolling some 17,000 students. Most who attend are not Catholic, but the archdiocese’s marketing research found that the schools’ faith education remains an important reason why Archbishop William Lori says school closures will be paired with a 10-year plan for investments in the Catholic system. parents choose them. Demand for Catholic education remains high, but cost is a barrier, even though tuition — about $6,000 a year in elementary schools and double that in high schools — remains modest compared to many of the region’s private schools. The archdiocese provides $13.5 million in total aid for the system annually, most of it for tuition assistance. Still, the system gets requests for twice as much aid as it is able to provide, a problem officials have sought to ameliorate by fundraising for endowments, even for elementary schools.
This year, the General Assembly approved $5 million in funding for so-called BOOST scholarships for low-income families to send their children to non-public schools. Many public school advocates balked, arguing that private schools should not compete for tax dollars, and there is no guarantee that the program will continue past this year. However, it does offer an indication that affordability is the only thing standing in the way of growth for the archdiocesan schools. The system wound up getting $1 million of this year’s BOOST funding, enabling the system to offer scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $4,400 to 445 students, 427 of whomaccepted them and enrolled. If more families who can afford the full tuition are attracted to the system because of the investments it is now planning, it will be in a stronger position to provide aid for those who can’t, regardless of what happens with BOOST.
Even though this round of school closures is modest compared to what happened six years ago, it is certain to be disruptive and dispiriting for the families that are affected. They often make substantial sacrifices to provide their children with a Catholic education, and changes like this one are bound to make some question their decisions. But this announcement isn’t about retreat and retrenchment. It’s about positioning the system to grow.