Dr. Christian Dallavis Guest Blog on Jubilee Schools

Dr. Christian Dallavis Guest Blog on Jubilee Schools

My colleague on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, Kole Knueppel, often talks about leadership in terms of mountaintop and valley experiences. A few months ago, on a Tuesday in January, several of us on Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education team drove to Chicago to participate in the kickoff to Catholic Schools Week, and I witnessed both a summit and a crater for Catholic schools, all within the span of a few hours. It was a Paschal Mystery kind of day, in reverse.

In Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich hosted the annual archdiocesan Catholic education breakfast at the Chicago Hilton, where he and Superintendent Jim Rigg had invited Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, and a graduate of ACE’s leadership program, St. Genevieve principal McKenna Corrigan, to speak to Chicago’s 500 best friends of Catholic schools about their passion for our schools and the children we serve. There was an electric buzz in the air; everyone in the ballroom was bubbling about the impending $100 million in parental choice scholarships that will be available for students this fall. Many of the people who made this victory for parental choice possible were present, and the breakfast was very much a well-deserved celebration of a landmark moment in a battle the Church has been fighting since 1840. Cardinal Cupich said, “One of the most important decisions parents make for their children is where their kids are going to go to school. We should make sure that all parents have that decision-making freedom and that power.” Thanks in large part to his efforts, the future of Catholic education in an archdiocese with more than 200 schools never seemed brighter.

Later that day, 8 hours down Interstate 57, lay the valley. After spending 19 years and $30 million in private scholarships on the Jubilee Schools provided by generous faith-filled donors, the leadership of the Diocese of Memphis had decided to close the doors of these schools for good. That same Tuesday afternoon the Diocese sent a letter home to parents from all 10 Jubilee Schools and one additional school, announcing that each would be closing.

The Jubilee Schools had been reopened in 1999, with the support of two anonymous funders and many others who had poured their personal resources into the schools, to help realize Bishop Terry Steib’s vision to provide a Gospel-centered education to thousands of urban children living in poverty, whether the children were Catholic or not. Less than two decades after being on the mountaintop themselves when they opened the “Miracle in Memphis” (with a young Jim Rigg as one of the school’s founding principals), the diocese blamed financial challenges and recent failures to pass school choice legislation for the closures, while announcing tentative plans to allow a charter management operator to lease the buildings to operate public charter schools pending state and district approval.

I last visited the Jubilee Schools three years ago. It felt like a reunion, to me anyway – Bishop Steib confirmed me almost thirty years ago, when he was a young auxiliary bishop in St. Louis. He joked that he remembered me well and was gracious enough to take a selfie with me that I could post to Facebook to show my old 8th grade classmates from Sts. Joachim & Ann. He had invited several of us from ACE down to help his team think about how the Jubilee Schools might face the future, and we spent a long time talking about the need to integrate academic quality with a deep sense of mission and commitment to root beliefs. I was struck by Bishop Steib’s vision of schools that could be indelibly Catholic and academically extraordinary, and that visit reinforced my belief in the power of strong Catholic school culture as a tool that great school leaders need to learn, practice, and master.

Around that time, the Tennessee legislature came close to passing school choice legislation and they came closer still the following year. Now, however, that literally all of the urban Catholic schools in the city of Memphis will be closed, the prospects for school choice legislation has nearly vanished for the families of Memphis. I don’t know if the failure to pass school choice killed the Jubilee Schools. But I suspect the closure of the Jubilee Schools will probably kill school choice in Memphis.

Some will say–indeed, in the article announcing the closures in the Memphis paper, it has already been said–that the rising charter sector has created choices that did not exist in 1999 and that these choices soften the blow of the closures. Many have used the word “conversion” to describe what will happen when these schools close and re-open as charter schools. Many have written and spoken (including bishops) about so-called “wrap-around” charter schools that offer religious education outside of school hours, as though this were a suitable substitute for a Catholic school.

Let’s stop fooling ourselves with euphemisms.  We have to be honest about the words we use, words like “wrap-around” and “conversion.” It sounds comforting to “wrap” ourselves up in our Catholic identity, but that is not really what happens. There is a romantic notion that we would shroud the statues from 8 am to 3 pm only to dramatically remove them when the bell rings at 3, and the sudden appearance of Mary or Jesus in the building would have a powerful evangelizing effect. The reality is more mundane. Of course, schools offer an optional after school religious education program that also provides tutoring and physical education and other extracurriculars. I’ve not yet heard of a charter school that attempts to have religious education before school as well as after, and certainly none that offer sacraments.  What is “wrapping around?” The efforts I have read about seem to have as much after-school physical education and tutoring as they have religious education.

“Conversion” is another word that can lull us into feeling good about our abandonment of our evangelizing mission. There is no “conversion” taking place when Catholic school buildings stop teaching the faith to host public schools. After all, “conversions” often evince positive religious experiences. But when a Catholic school closes and a pastor leases its space to a public school, there is no religious experience. In reality, quite the opposite: the faith and values – the elements of the school that were most important to the community the school served – must, by law, be sacrificed.

To offer 45 or 60 minutes of optional after-school religious education a few times a week does not replace the ability to hire our teachers based on whether they believe each child is made in the image and likeness of God – and to hold them accountable to a set of actions that are consistent with that belief and others that are core to our faith and the faith that parents have entrusted us to transmit to their children.

That is what we are sacrificing, for a relatively small bag of silver.

I send my children to Catholic school not because they get 45 minutes of religious education every day but because they (and I) know that every teacher believes deeply in their God-given dignity; that each of their teachers believes she is a disciple with hope to bring; that each teacher holds a sacramental view of the world that sees God in all things and encourages my children to find God’s living presence in history, in literature, under a microscope, in imaginary numbers in math, in each other, and in themselves. The 45 minutes of religious education is important, but it is not even close to the main thing.

It’s not why the 1,500 parents of Jubilee students have been sending their kids to the Memphis schools. They could have been going to public charter schools and CCD this whole time. There has been no demand for “wrap-around” charters in Memphis–there has been demand for Jubilee Schools. Why? Because there is a demand–and always will be, I suspect, among parents–for teachers who believe that each child is made in the image and likeness of God. There is a demand for school leaders who will hold teachers accountable for being a disciple with hope to bring. There is demand for classrooms that seek God in all things, and not just correct answers. There is demand for school communities that are more like families and second homes. Charter school leaders cannot, by law, hire and fire teachers based on whether or not they believe these things. Supplemental religious education after school cannot supplant a shared set of root beliefs.

Strong leaders imagine a vision of a better tomorrow, and they provide a roadmap to show us how to get there. If no such map exists, they draw one. They refuse to sacrifice their root beliefs for revenue. It is uncertain whether or not the Jubilee funding model was sustainable, but were efforts really made to try to find a way forward?  The key to vision–whether you’re standing on top of a mountain or in the bottom of a valley–is to find a way. I am deeply saddened that the leadership of the Diocese of Memphis ultimately felt they had to walk away rather than find a way, and as a result, the urban families of Memphis will no longer have access to Catholic schools.

After spending some days with Bishop Steib, I appreciate the enormous costs that it took to run the Jubilee Schools. I’m disappointed that the Church was unable to find a way to leverage these school communities to advocate effectively for parental choice in Tennessee, and I’m anxious that the closure of the schools will almost certainly result in the end of urban Catholic education for vulnerable families in Memphis. I hope that this tragic example will not discourage other leaders; instead, I pray that in other places like Memphis, where leaders find themselves against long odds, that they will find the strength and imagination and zeal to dig deep to bring their vision to life, and that the two decades that the Jubilee Schools spent on the mountaintop may stand as an example to inspire efforts elsewhere to offer an education in the faith.

At the same time, I pray in thanksgiving for the opportunity to help demonstrate what is possible in Chicago, where strong leaders with extraordinary vision have demonstrated the courage to create a once-in-a-century opportunity. As parental choice scholarships come into play in one of our nation’s largest archdioceses, we have an opportunity to reach new heights, proving what is possible in Catholic schools.