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St. Bede Academy- a small Benedictine Catholic school in Peru, IL- broke ground this past Monday on a new building that will house female boarding students beginning with the 2009-2010 academic year. 

Reclaiming its boarding mission, St. Bede reopened its boarding department boarding department with the 2007-2008 school year, with four girls and eight boys living in leased residences. St. Bede boarded boys boarding school from 1892 through 1981 and has been coeducational since 1973.

Rev. Claude Peifer told the school's public relations office:

"St. Bede Academy is responding to a renewed interest in providing opportunities for boarding students on a small scale, and so we are providing housing on campus for this purpose. We hope that the boarding students will profit by living on campus because they will thus be able to participate more fully in the activities of the academy."
A second boys dormitory is in the works although no timetable has been set.

The expanded boarding program reaches back into the school's roots, providing boarding school opportunities to a new generation of students.

Rev. Peifer added:

"We hope that some of our boarding-school alumni who have fond memories of their years at St. Bede will enable their children to profit by the opportunity to enjoy a similar academic and living experience in a 21st-century context."
Traditional  boarding tuition looks to be a great boarding school bargain with  seven day tuition, room, and board St. Bede totaling $23,000 annually.

Read the article from The Daily Times of Ottawa.

From today's Washington Post (Aid Is Increased to Help Keep Struggling Families From Removing Students)- with experience working through difficult situations over the past decade- declining enrollment, increasing costs and families electing non-catholic education options, the Catholic schools of the DC area are moving quickly and decisively to help families seeking financial aid.

As Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association told the Post "Any kind of issues that we had before have just been intensified by the concern over the economy."

To their credit, the administrators of DC are Catholic schools are committed to finding and making increased financial aid available to families who might need tuition assistance for the first time.

"To retain students whose parents have hit rocky financial times, dioceses are increasing financial aid for next year, extending financial aid deadlines and offering emergency aid for this year for families facing sudden setbacks who are unable to pay tuition, which runs between $4,000 and $18,000 a year.

The Arlington Diocese, which has about 18,000 students, has increased its financial aid from $1.7 million to $2 million for next year. It is also offering $250,000 this year for people in immediate need, said Sister Bernadette McManigal, interim schools superintendent.

She expects the money to run out quickly. "I probably could use a half-million just for immediate need," she said." (Washington Post)
While doing great work, I find the-story-behind-the-story the most interesting aspect of this piece. Increasing financial aid is something that every tuition driven school would love today.  Most can't. But some schools- like the DC area Catholic schools- find more aid. And, I think the reasons are simple. Start with Lower overhead.  But, beyond that, I see commitment and communal bonds.

Most everyone, clergy, teachers, parents, students, charities and families share a common bond of service and shared sacrifice. "Working together, we can find a way to make this work." And, unlike stand-alone independent schools, catholic schools seem to be able to draw on revenues from other parts of their diocese.

"Barbara McGraw Edmondson, principal of the School of the Incarnation in Gambrills, said her school's leadership has decided that it will waive tuition, if need be, to keep children in school. Several families have come to the school seeking assistance because of unemployment or decreased income.

"If a family is in that situation, we certainly would have the child remain in school even if they can't pay the tuition," Edmondson said. "That is the reality now." (Washington Post)
One can't help but be impressed by the commitment and levels of shared sacrifice and wonder, "are there ways for independent schools to build, practice, and benefit from these intense levels of commitment and sacrifice?"

Catholic Schools Struggle to Find Their Raison d'être in a Changing World

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American catholic schools' enrollment has dropped by more than half from its peak of 5 million more than 40 years ago (New York Times - For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis). If you pay any attention to numbers and the health of institutions, a decline of more than 50% gets your attention. In the case of catholic and parochial schools, the Church, catholic families, and parishes are asking a multitude of questions about the nature of catholic education, catholic schools, and how they- all- should, plan for, and move into the future.

"....recently, after years of what frustrated parents describe as inertia in the church hierarchy, a sense of urgency seems to be gripping many Catholics who suddenly see in the shrinking enrollment a once unimaginable prospect: a country without Catholic schools.

From the ranks of national church leaders to the faithful in the pews, there are dozens of local efforts to forge a new future for parochial education by rescuing the remaining schools or, if need be, reinventing them. The efforts are all being driven, in one way or another, by a question in a University of Notre Dame task force report in 2006: "Will it be said of our generation that we presided over the demise" of Catholic schools?" (New York Times - For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis)

Everyone involved believes that catholic education matters and contributes to the American educational and social fabric. The trick is and will be to create a niche for catholic schools that keeps them bright, viable and of high quality.

As is often the case the best solutions are creative and responsive to local needs. Alumni are being asked to play larger roles. Student financing has become an openly discussed and planned for topic. Lay boards are being created to oversee educational matters. In Memphis, the diocese cultivates private donors and foundations for funding. And, in the most jarring local change:

"The Archdiocese of Washington was so desperate to save seven struggling parochial schools last year that it opted for a solution that shook Catholic educators to the core. It took down the crucifixes, hauled away the statues of the Virgin Mary, and -- in its own word -- "converted" the schools in the nation's capital into city charter schools." (New York Times - For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis)

I'm certain that this struggle is no fun for anyone involved. But, I can't help but believe that long term good will come soul searching and creative solutions. As an interviewee intimated in the article, many catholic and non-catholic school families and alumni assumed that catholic schools would be around forever. But changing times and circumstances always pressure and challenge the viability of all institutions.

Surviving schools will come out of these challenges sharply focused, with sound educational and financial plans and able to communicate the value of their education to families.

The challenge for any and all private schools is maintaining and building a viability to the ever changing world. If you don't stay connected and relevant to what families and children require, you become irrelevant and families can find a more valuable education elsewhere. As a private or parochial school you've got to do two things:

  1. Make yourself the best choice

  2. Stay affordable to your constituency

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