Thomas Kiely’s Guest Blog on Jubilee Schools

Thomas Kiely’s Guest Blog on Jubilee Schools

When the Jubilee School in Memphis, TN announced their closure earlier this year I shared the sadness of those engaged directly in the schools, and the general discontent of colleagues working in urban Catholic education more generally.  While I am sure that the reasons for the closure had been building over time, I believe that the larger Catholic educational community can look to Jubilee as both a successful venture that did not last forever, and as a cautionary tale that can help inform Catholic school colleagues.  To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy: successful Catholic schools are all alike; every troubled Catholic school is troubled in its own way.

As an American Catholic church we love to celebrate success and mourn loss, but we have adopted too easily the cultural habit of “whispering” behind the scenes during troubled times rather than working collectively to solve problems.  We need to speak more openly about our troubles as well as our triumphs.  However, too often the competitive situations in which we find ourselves regarding enrollment, unique programming, or public relations silences the insights we might receive from each other.

Our schools were set up in a time of abundant students, limited school choices, and families who were deeply motivated to remain in tightly bound community relationships.  In addition, the faculty and staff overwhelmingly were the vowed members of religious orders.  A great deal of that landscape has changed.  Student population numbers are large in some demographics and scarce in others.  The watchword of the day is school choice.  Communities are of a much more shifting and amorphous quality than ever before and are often driven by diverse interests rather than proximity and defined relationships.  The faculty and staff are mostly lay women and men who must earn a living, support families, and envision a career that contains a measure of upward mobility.  Information sharing and criticism is the currency by which culture moves rather than a more hierarchical transfer system from those who know to those who learn.

This leads to a need for conversations among Catholic administrators, teachers, parents, and students.  This Summer over 30 Catholic School Urban system administrators will gather at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the first Congress of Conversations among such a group.  Sparked in part by Dr. Bill Hughes of Seton Catholic Schools Milwaukee, the Congress will attempt to dig deeply into the areas described by the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Schools (NSBECS).  Moving beyond somewhat static understandings of the NSBECS the Congress hopes to provoke thought and conversation around areas such as leadership transitions, teacher and leadership pipelines, collaboration with partners who can assist schools in multiple areas, flexibility, integrating non-Catholic students and families into urban Catholic schools, enrollment, academic success, funding, governance, and other topics brought to the Congress by the participants.  This event is co-hosted by the NCEA, Marquette University, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and Seton Catholic Schools of Milwaukee.

25 years ago Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee and Anthony Holland published Catholic Schools and the Common Good a landmark study proclaiming that Catholic schools produced “an independent effect on achievement, especially in reducing disparities between disadvantaged and other students.”  The authors tried to look into the future to anticipate future conceptions of Catholic schools: as “a realization of the prophetic Church that critically engages contemporary culture…” and whose “major value… embodies the tradition of thought, rituals, mores, and organizational practices that form these schools.”  Just as Bryk, Lee, and Holland saw Catholic schools as an “invitation to students both to reflect on a systematic body of thought and to immerse themselves in a communal life,” so, too, today’s urban administrators need such an immersion in order to serve the students they seek to educate.

Confronting the tradition, the lived experiences, the challenges and the successes as a Church spanning the nation’s cities can only enhance hopes for success. In the words of Margaret Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett in Lost Classroom, Lost Community: “Catholic schools have long exhibited faith in the ability of all children to learn regardless of circumstance and apparently have fostered community in neighborhoods where social ties are frayed.”  The sharing of conversation: successes and failures, colleagueship, prayer, and community must extend to those who serve often in isolation, under pressure, left with only their wits and their faith in what they do.  Let us not fray the ties that bind us to each other in Christ.