Catholic schools look to the future

Karna Swanson

Nearly 200 teachers, principals, pastors and archdiocesan leaders gathered with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Radisson Denver Southeast Oct. 5-6 for a two-day symposium to discuss the challenges currently facing Catholic schools in northern Colorado. According to Kevin Kijewski, the superintendent of Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools since July 1, the discussions focused on three key areas: “forming disciples, filling desks and fundraising dollars.”

In the following interview with Denver Catholic, Kijewski elaborates on why Archbishop Aquila convoked the symposium, as well as the archbishop’s desire to renew the commitment of all Catholic schools to form intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.

Q: Why did you convoke a school symposium, and why now?

Kevin Kijewski is the Superintendent of Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools.

Kevin Kijewski is the Superintendent of Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools.

Kijewski: Archbishop Aquila asked me to organize a school symposium to discuss multiple challenges facing our school system and identify possible solutions for implementation. For far too many years, our Catholic school system has suffered from enrollment declines and financial challenges. We believe that solving these problems is terribly important, as Catholic schools are essential to a vibrant future for the Church in Denver. The symposium provided the archdiocese with an opportunity to constructively and effectively address challenges facing our school system. At his December 2009 press conference that introduced Brian Kelly as the University of Notre Dame’s new head football coach, Kelly indicated that a timetable for turning around the football team’s direction cannot be made too long term. “We don’t have a five-year plan,” Kelly said. “We have a five-minute plan and we’ll start to work on it immediately.” Like Coach Kelly, our Catholic schools in Denver need to directly and quickly tackle challenges, and I hope to see our schools performing at the highest levels in the near future.

Q: What challenges did you want to address?

Kijewski: The symposium addressed three key challenges that have faced our schools for the past several years: forming disciples, filling desks and fundraising dollars.

Q: What was the format of the school symposium and who attended?

 Kijewski: The symposium was meant not simply as a chance to frame problems, but more importantly to serve as an opportunity for stakeholders to share and discuss possible solutions. All priests were invited to participate, along with archdiocesan leaders, school leaders, parish staff and school benefactors. The symposium lasted two days and fostered a lot of great discussion and feedback regarding how to solve these three challenges.

Q: Who presented on forming disciples and what was discussed?

Kijewski: Regarding the challenge of forming disciples, Archbishop Aquila presented his vision and expectations related to Catholic schools. Specifically, he stated that Catholic schools exist to form intentional disciples of Jesus Christ and create saints. He discussed how Catholic schools should be the premier method for transmitting the faith from one generation to the next. He charged the Office of Catholic Schools with the responsibility to conduct a visitation of all six Catholic high schools in the archdiocese, with the goal to ensure faithfulness to the Church’s Magisterium. He also asked the stakeholders to present their ideas about how schools could bolster their current efforts to form disciples.

Q: What was discussed regarding the challenge of filling desks?

Kijewski: Addressing the challenge of filling desks with students in our schools, I presented along with Congregation of the Holy Cross Father Joseph Corpora from the University of Notre Dame. Specifically, I discussed with the audience various models of school governance. Research has indicated that effective school governance leads to consistent enrollment growth and financial viability of Catholic schools. In addition, I engaged the audience about how our schools may compete with public and charter schools by offering new academic specialty programming or tracks. While our primary goal will always be to form intentional disciples to Jesus Christ, our schools need to examine ways to offer supplemental value by offering specialty programs in the sciences, technology, performing arts and foreign languages.

Father Corpora was able to discuss the importance of serving the Hispanic population in the archdiocese. As an expert working at the University of Notre Dame in the field the recruitment and retention of Hispanic students in Catholic Schools, he shared insights into why it’s critical to focus on serving this population and methods that schools could employ to increase their enrollment in our schools. To illustrate the importance of this issue, 51 percent of the people in the pews at Sunday Mass every week in our archdiocese are Hispanic. However, just about 20 percent of students enrolled in our Catholic schools are Hispanic.

Q: What was discussed about the last piece, fundraising dollars?

Kijewski: To ensure that our schools are able to form disciples and enroll students, it’s also critically important that we address tuition and the financial health of our schools. Keith Parsons, the Chief Financial Officer of the Archdiocese, discussed the current state of school finance. He also presented multiple approaches to ensuring the long-term financial viability of our schools. Stakeholders were asked for their input for how the archdiocese should finance Catholic schools to ensure their long-term viability.

Q: What changes can we expect to see in the short and long term?

Kijewski: Our office will be working with a team to review the feedback and ideas gathered at the symposium. In the short term, we expect to formulate and announce a strategic plan to address and solve these three key challenges. In the long term, we will be implementing strategies that will foster growth, innovation, and effective leadership in our schools.

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.