Education Task Force releases report on Catholic schools

Diocese receives $1 million gift to begin implementation

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — After a year-and-a-half of extensive research and work, the Diocese of Fall River’s Task Force on Catholic Education has issued its final report, providing an assessment of the 22 diocesan schools and a range of recommendations to strengthen them and the diocesan school system as a whole.

Collectively, the recommendations call for a more coordinated school system, enhanced professionalism, and an infusion of capital to ensure long-term sustainability.

Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., announced the recommendations during a press conference on November 4 in the library of Holy Trinity School in Fall River.

“When I arrived here in the Diocese of Fall River a little over two years ago, one of the things I was informed of was the need to really evaluate and plan for the future of our parishes and of our schools,” Bishop da Cunha said. “So I began to talk with school leaders, with our education department, with diocesan officials, and with people interested in our mission to begin a long process of putting together the task force and then entrusting the task force with the responsibility of evaluating and making recommendations for our schools. The task force was formed in early 2015 and completed their work about two months ago.”

Intended to be the starting point of a multi-year comprehensive initiative, the report does not recommend the closure or merger of any schools at this time and the bishop said it would “provide a hope-filled pathway for building a sustainable and viable school system” in the future.

“We need to share a collective responsibility for our schools. We need to be working together as one mission, one effort, one system — parishes, schools, priests, laity all working together,” Bishop da Cunha said. “And we need a strategic and comprehensive response to diocesan-wide enrollment issues (along with) assistance to schools in developing strategic tuition and financial aid policies to ensure that students from all social and economic backgrounds have access to a Catholic education.”

Stressing the importance of Catholic education not only to the future of the Church but also to the state and local communities, Bishop da Cunha said the cost to educate one child in Massachusetts is estimated to be $14,936 — so the 6,367 students currently enrolled in diocesan schools are saving taxpayers some $95 million.

Catholic school students also score 1606 in average combined SAT scores when compared with 1552 for students statewide and 100 percent of Catholic high school students graduate while 95 percent go on to higher education.

“Our teachers, administrators, students and parish communities have been remarkably successful with limited resources, and their commitment and passion is so evident in everyday life and in every school we walk into,” the bishop said.

Despite this success, however, diocesan schools have had to face many challenges of late — not least among them rising costs and declining enrollments.

“We have lost some (students) and we have closed some schools in the past, but what we want to do is to make sure this trend does not continue for too long — in fact, we want to reverse it,” Bishop da Cunha said. “We must rally around a bold vision and embrace the changes that are necessary and essential to the future of our schools.”

Noting the Task Force on Catholic Education focused on four specific areas — academic excellence, enrollment, finance and governance — the bishop cited among its findings:

— Teachers’ salaries are well below district and state levels;
— There is a lack of consistent curriculum standards;
— There are unfilled seats existing at many of the schools;
— There has been a steady decline in enrollment for the past few years;
— There are no significant endowments to fall back on;
— There have never been independent audits or rigorous financial reviews of the schools;
— School advisory boards operate with a lack of clarity; and
— There is an inconsistent presence of clergy in the schools.

“What we want to do is to reverse all these challenges to make our schools vibrant for the future,” Bishop da Cunha said. “(This) report is our official document for the new era of our (diocesan) schools, beginning now. We need to have academically excellent, vibrant and financially-sustainable schools that are a cornerstone of our thriving Catholic communities.”

The bishop said the findings in the report suggest a “move from being a system of schools to a school system.”

“That would be very, very effective in fulfilling this mission,” he added. “We need a uniform standard for academic and business practices and uniform tuition and financial aid policies. This is our new systemization of schools.”

To this end, some of the key recommendations in the report include:

— Establish clear, consistent diocesan-wide standards for academic quality at each school level and uniform accountability measures;
— Continue investing in the quality of each school on multiple levels (capital improvements, technology, curriculum and staff);
— Implement strategies to stabilize and grow enrollment in the schools;
— Align demographic research and marketing activities to establish a system-wide process for financial management;
— Pursue other sources of funding beyond existing institutions; and
— Expand the staff at the Catholic Education Center and establish a centralized Catholic School Board to set system-wide policies and practices.

Bishop da Cunha has already appointed an Implementation Team to begin to put in place those recommendations considered a priority and foundational to the overall success of schools. This new team will be led by Dr. Mary Pat Tranter, president of Coyle and Cassidy High School in Taunton; and Father David A. Costa, pastor of St. Mary and Sacred Heart parishes in North Attleboro and director of St. Mary-Sacred Heart School.

Once established, the Central School Board will oversee the implementation process, which will continue over the next three years with costs prioritized and budgeted.

“We need to have more resources to give out more scholarships and establish an endowment for scholarships,” Bishop da Cunha said. “We need to upgrade our buildings and facilities. All these things need a lot of resources, a lot of talent, and a lot of dedication from so many people.”

These things will also require money, as Bishop da Cunha noted in his discussions with the team.

“As we began discussing the implementation process, one of the things I kept telling people was ‘How are we going to find the resources to do all this?’ And many people were telling me the resources are out there,” he said. “Once we present a plan and once we let people know how important this is for the future of our Church and our communities, you’re going to have a lot of good people joining in this effort.”

As if on cue, the first to join the effort was the Carney Family Charitable Foundation, which generously contributed $1 million toward the costs of implementing the recommendations.

“The Carney Family told me they were going to give $1 million and the Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Education has matched that $1 million, so now we already have $2 million to start this process,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined when I started this task force that we would have such an incredible, positive response. So I’m so grateful to the Carney Family and I want to thank them for their extraordinarily generous gift. So many children will benefit from it.”

“I was so honored to be part of the task force the bishop appointed,” said Kate Carney Larisa, executive director of the Carney Family Charitable Foundation. “As we concluded our work, it became clear that new investments would be required to successfully jump-start our implementation. Therefore, to help grow enrollment and ensure accessibility for those children and families desiring a Catholic school education, we have made a million-dollar investment in scholarships to the Foundation to Advance Catholic Education. It is our hope that this early investment will inspire others to participate in this exciting renewal of our schools.”

“With this $2 million gift, by next year we expect our enrollment is going to go up because we’ll be able to offer more scholarships than we’ve been able to do at this point,” Bishop da Cunha said. “That’s really our ultimate goal: to increase enrollment. The reasons for enrollment going down are many — economics, demographics — and we can spend a lot of time analyzing that, but we know there are children out there and by providing them a way to come to our schools, we’ll increase enrollment.”

“We have already seen so many people telling us: ‘We want to be part of this mission,’ and they are beginning to respond to these recommendations in a very positive way,” he added.

Although the implementation team has just begun the process of responding to the task force recommendations, Bishop da Cunha is confident this marks the beginning of a “new era for our Catholic schools here in the Diocese of Fall River.”

“The process of renewing (our diocesan schools) may present some difficult choices, but we all have to work on these together,” the bishop said. “I am so grateful to everyone involved, and they know they have my commitment and my support because I firmly believe that all we do to maintain and keep our Catholic schools alive will, in the long run, benefit our communities, our families, our towns, our state, and our country. The benefits that a Catholic education offers to students cannot be matched anywhere, because we offer a faith-based education that will fully prepare these children for the next generation.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts