New Catholic schools plan stresses enrollment, collaboration

(As published in Sept. 2016 edition of The Prairie Catholic)

by Sam Patet, Prairie Catholic Correspondent

Last year, the diocese’s 15 elementary schools and three high schools had 2,062 students.

While that number might sound impressive, it’s down over 900 from 10 years ago. In other words, since the 2005-06 school year, the Catholic schools in the Diocese of New Ulm have lost over 30 percent of their students.

Almost two-thirds of those losses, however, came in the first five years of the period. Efforts undertaken since then in implementing the diocese’s first plan for Catholic schools have gone a long way to limiting those losses.

That’s one big reason the Schools Planning Committee (a subcommittee of the diocesan Committee on Parishes) has redoubled its efforts to help the diocese’s Catholic schools attract and retain students in the creation of the second “Pastoral Plan for Catholic Schools.”

Officially promulgated on Aug. 10, 2016 by Bishop John M. LeVoir, the plan not only encourages schools to collaborate more closely with one another, but explains why Catholic schools are still needed in the 21st century.

“Catholic schools are a vital aspect of the Church’s mission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Bishop LeVoir writes in a foreword to the plan. “We must keep a focus on the link between the mission of Catholic schools and the proclamation of the gospel” (p. 6).

Karla Cross, director of the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools since 2008, chaired the committee that wrote the plan. Catholic schools have always provided a high-quality, faith-based education to thousands of students in the diocese, she said. But changing demographics have dramatically affected schools’ ability to stay open.

“Smaller families, larger farms, lack of employment opportunities, declining population, declining number of Catholics, and the declining numbers of religious sisters and priests are just some of the factors that have changed the demographics of the diocese and given the diocese cause to attempt to plan for the future,” Cross said. “The ‘Pastoral Plan for Catholic Schools’ responds to a present, critical need.”

Five years in the making

Cross and the Schools Planning Committee (which consisted of five Catholic school principals and one pastor) began working on the plan in early 2011. Over the next five years, it researched best practices for schools and solicited input from parents and educators.

Draft after draft of the plan was reviewed and edited, until a copy was submitted to the Committee on Parishes in 2015. It then was recommended by the Priests’ Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council for the bishop’s approval.

Shelly Bauer, principal at St. Anthony Catholic Elementary School in New Ulm for nine years, has served on the Schools Planning Committee since 2007. She thinks the plan will be a great resource for educators.

“The document provides expectations for leaders, staff, and the Catholic education program as a whole,” she said.

The first plan for Catholic schools, which was promulgated in June 2007, provided broad guidelines for administrators, educators, pastors, and the lay faithful to consider when assessing a school’s viability. The second plan provides more specific guidelines, Cross said.

It also ties in with the “Fourth Plan for Parishes,” the Diocese of New Ulm’s most recent pastoral planning document. Promulgated by Bishop LeVoir in 2013, the “Fourth Plan” calls all Catholics to live out their baptismal offices of priest, prophet, and king while prayerfully assessing how their parishes can better work together to spread the Gospel of Christ.

Similarly, the second “Pastoral Plan for Catholic Schools” encourages the ordained and lay faithful to plan for a school’s future with prayer and honesty.

Spreading the Gospel

The second schools plan begins by highlighting the vital role schools play in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Catholic schools are instruments of grace, sacred places where the Gospel comes alive daily – and where children and families encounter (and, not infrequently, re-engage) the faith,” the plan states, quoting the USCCB document “Renewing Christian Witness: Reflections on Catholic Schools as Instruments of the New Evangelization” (p. 10).

“By reason of its educational activity, Catholic schools participate directly and in a privileged way in the evangelizing mission of the Church,” the plan later states (p. 13).

Collaboration key for future

Next, the plan highlights several considerations all Catholic schools should consider in their planning efforts. These considerations, found in the plan’s second section, include the following:

– Catholic schools should consider a number of factors when assessing their viability. Not only does a school need to be accredited by the Minnesota Nonpublic School Accrediting Association (p. 15), but it also should have sound finances (p. 16) and adequate staffing (p. 17).

– More and more, Catholic schools need to collaborate with one another in order to provide high-quality, faith-filled education to their students. This may mean forming school-to-school partnerships within an area faith community or outside of one (p. 16).

– Catholic schools need to look to local stakeholders for assistance in charting a school’s future.  At the same time, they can (and should) look to the diocesan Office of Catholic Schools for guidance and support (p. 18).

Specific goals for schools

After presenting these considerations, the plan provides specific goals for Catholic schools. These goals are grouped into four categories, which were taken from the 2012 National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools: (1) Catholic identity, mission, and evangelization; (2) governance and leadership; (3) academic excellence; and (4) operational vitality.

Bauer said the plan’s emphasis on transparent conversations with school stakeholders – a fact that is stressed in the chapter on operational vitality – is extremely important. “It is essential that we work together to recognize and address the ever-changing demographics of the schools in the diocese,” she said.

She also found the section on academic excellence to be extremely helpful. “It provides suggestions on how to explore new and innovative instructional models for our schools,” she said.

Readers will note that the plan doesn’t contain a list of schools that should consolidate, nor does it provide an index that ranks how well each school is doing. That was intentional. Instead, communities should use the plan to have honest, open conversations about the future of their schools (see page 15).

Cross hopes the plan will help Catholic schools in the diocese remain viable and excellent for generations to come. “There is always hope,” she said. “As long as a significant number of parents desire to choose a Catholic education for their children, there is hope.”

Editor’s note: The 2016 “Pastoral Plan for Catholic Schools,” as well as the surveys compiled for writing the plan, are currently available at

Sam Patet writes from Roseville, Minn.