Catholic school revolt?

A lot of Catholic school parents in Los Angeles are angry -- an anger that poured out in a remarkable open forum at my parish Wednesday night.

The gathering was called to address a plan by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to extend the grammar school year by twenty days -- one month. The extension was announced last week absent any prior consultation with a broad array of pastors, principals, teachers or parents.

To the surprise of few, that top-down approach to something this important sparked a lot of unhappiness among the rank and file. And, to its credit, the archdiocese is now seeking to build that lost consensus through a series of forums at schools and parishes.

Kevin Baxter, head of elementary education for the archdiocese and architect of the extended school plan, came to my parish for our forum. He faced a largely hostile auditorium filled with parents who felt disrespected by the decision-making process. Some parents were against the whole idea of more school, no matter how the decision was reached, but the anger I saw really grew out of a kind of humiliation: a sense that parents had been disregarded in what came across as a paternalistic move by people who "know best."

Said one mother: "I may not have a PhD in education, but I have a PhD in being a Mom."

Another: "The Catholic Church in this country is changing. Slowly, but it is changing. And we don't just sit there and let other make the decisions for us. This is a new generation of Catholic school parents."

It is hard to argue against more education for your children -- and it was clear that Baxter's heart was in the right place. He wants Catholic schools -- already rock solid -- to turn out even better students in a rapidly changing world that requires ever-higher levels of education in order to achieve success.

Look at our current unemployment situation: joblessness among college grads is very low, only 4 percent according to the latest figures. But among workers with high school education or less? It's 14 percent. The jobs crisis lies squarely with this less-educated group.

But parents in that auditorium felt that this decision was being forced on them by others -- others who demanded all sacrifice to be shouldered by parents: higher tuition (to cover additional costs), and four weeks less of summer to bond as a family, to involve children in outside activites like athletics, the arts, or specialized education.

The answer lies where it always does: in the middle. Don't know about where you live, but Catholics schools here in Los Angeles seem chock-full of half-days: we have First Friday mass, Lenten services every morning during that season, celebrations to Mary and the saints. And we have frequent half-days for faculty meetings and conferences.

All of these are essential to better education and to our identity as Catholic schools. But perhaps sacrifices need to come from these areas as well: given fewer half-days, the archdiocese could accomplish its overall educational goals with perhaps a ten-day or fifteen-day school year extension, instead of twenty.

This idea of shared-sacrifice to achieve a shared goal did not, in all honestly, seem to occur to archdiocesan officials. These officials seemed to feel that they had already sacrificed a lot -- and I get that. Nobody is getting rich teaching Catholic school; nobody does it for the glory. Each day, Catholic educators do their sacrificing.

But so do parents -- without their tuition money, and (more importantly) without their consistent volunteer work and fundraising, many Catholic schools and parishes would cease to be. It's really that simple.

The anger I heard at my parish came from people who believed strongly that they had earned a seat at the table, but instead saw the chairs pulled out from under them.

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