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Education Summit will address issue that will improve Catholic schools in Diocese of Buffalo

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The Diocesan Department of Catholic Schools will host an Education Summit Nov. 10 at Niagara University. Over 200 stakeholders from area Catholic elementary schools, high schools and colleges have been invited.

Kevin Baxter, Ph.D.

“We’re going to work through some ideas and issues and collaborate on possible solutions on how to make our schools more sustainable,” explained Dr. Tim Uhl, superintendent of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Buffalo.

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Kevin Baxter, director of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program where he oversees the formation of Catholic school leaders and serves as a professor. Students in the Remick Leadership Program earn a master’s degree in educational leadership as they learn to build robust Catholic school communities, advance teaching and learning, and manage school resources.

“The work I’ve done over my career is based on this idea of leadership and innovation,” Baxter said. “That, when done together really effectively is a growth agenda for Catholic schools. And so, what I’ll talk about is some of that specific Buffalo history, but some of the national data. The rich tradition that we come from in terms of the saints who helped build Catholic schools for the last 150 years. And then talk about some of the challenges that we have had over the last, you know, 10, 20 years, specifically in terms of enrollment declines, in terms of a lot of the challenges that a schools have faced.

And then the key aspect really is to paint a picture of the future that is hopeful, that’s optimistic, that is anchored in solid practice, anchored in strong leadership, anchored in innovation.”

Baxter points out that decline in Catholic enrollment is generally common across the country, although enrollment is growing in areas where the Catholic population is growing. In the 1990s, Catholic schools grew by about 65,000 kids over that decade across the country. Baxter points to three huge factors that led to the decline since 2000 – charter schools, the abuse scandal, and the lack of vowed religious teaching in schools.

“I would say the largest factor is really the decline of women religious especially. Religious used to make up about 95 percent of the staff of a Catholic school. That’s as recent as probably the ’50s. and maybe 5 percent were lay people. That percentage has fully switched. And so now, nationwide, it’s probably 95 to 97 percent lay people and maybe 3 to 5 percent are religious. And so, what that’s done obviously is it has shifted budgets, right? It’s changed your whole budget focus. And so that results in increased tuition. It results in, maybe higher costs for families and, and especially larger families find it more challenging than to put their kids into Catholic schools. And so those are just some of the factors, that I think have impacted, especially over the last probably two decades and have contributed to this decline in enrollment.”

The ideal model, Baxter said, is the K-eight parish school with the pastor and families invested in the school. In recent years, due to a decline in the priests, regional schools have become a necessity. Also, non-Catholic parents and parents who do not attend Mass at the school’s parish has had an effect.

“It’s successful is when you have a pastor of a parish with a parish population that has their kids in the Catholic school. And, the school and the parish are working very much in alignment. And the school is part of the church. And the church is part of the school. Parents go to Mass on Sundays. They’ve got their kids in different programs within the parish, and then they go to the Catholic school on Monday. That is ideal, obviously. And that maybe even was a little bit idealistic even, you know, 30 years ago. But that was how the parish-based model worked,” he said. “What you see increasingly now are parents who will, you know, Catholic school shop or they’ll put their kids into the Catholic school that’s close to their work. So, they’ll drop their kids at the Catholic school and then go to work and then pick up the kids, but they’ll never go to Mass at that parish. They’ll go to Mass maybe where they reside. And so, we obviously have been increasing non-Catholic populations as well.”

Baxter said his talk will be interactive with time for discussion between topics.  

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