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Making the grade in Memphis

If Jason does eventually drop out, he would be the first Jubilee student to do so. This is remarkable considering that Jubilee families average only $14,000 per year (for three members). In the public system, there’s an ironclad relationship between poverty and academic outcome; test scores can be predicted with depressing accuracy. Jubilee students, in contrast make steady improvement to score above the 50th percentile in math and reading by the eighth grade on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), a reliable assessment given to two million mostly public school students from all demographic levels nationwide.

Given the low socioeconomic level of Jubilee schools’ demographics, “these students are performing well,” said David Doolittle, Ph.D., the vice-president of research and measurement for ITBS, in a telephone interview. Doolittle explained that the 50th percentile indicates grade-level performance for public school students of all socioeconomic levels nationwide.

No direct comparisons can be made between Jubilee students and their peers in Memphis’ public schools because McDonald refuses to let her students take state tests, which are among the most unreliable in the nation. According to the 2007 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), 88 percent of fourth-graders statewide scored at or above proficiency, compared to only 27 percent on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), considered the nation’s report card. This is one of the widest gaps between state and national results.

Tennessee students score among the lowest in the nation on the NAEP, with African Americans posting the third worst percentage of fourth-graders at or above proficiency in reading. In addition, low-income students in Tennessee perform in the bottom quarter of disadvantaged peers. Nationwide, Catholic school students perform significantly better than their public school peers on the NAEP, but data isn’t available to make specific geographic or demographic comparisons between parochial and public school students.

To attract and retain students, McDonald offers comprehensive need-based scholarships. Tuition is $5,000 per year, but families pay only $750 a year per child on average. Some families pay as little as $5 a month, since “even the most impoverished parents must invest something for a sense of ownership,” said McDonald. Shirley McKay’s salary requires her to pay $3,000 a year for each grandchild. Parents and students also make a commitment to uphold Jubilee’s behavioral and academic standards.

To underwrite scholarships and cover other costs, McDonald accesses endowment interest and seeks other donations and grants. She’s found it necessary to create growing number of programs to address student and family needs. Malnutrition was such a problem, a food program was instituted to serve hot breakfast and lunch. When McDonald noticed students sneaking leftovers home, she arranged to fill backpacks with non-perishable food on Fridays. Uniforms are supplied and laundered at the school. Eighty-seven percent of students live in single-parent, female-only households with parents who dropped out of the public schools system. Most are considered unemployable since they are functionally illiterate. McDonald instituted night classes to train these parents in job skills and basic literacy. Some are then hired to work in school cafeterias and eventually find employment in the city’s food service industry.

Since most disadvantaged children start kindergarten years behind in vocabulary and other prerequisite skills, Jubilee schools admit three- and four–year-olds in the pre-school program. “You have to get them early so they can catch up and to keep them away from bad influences,” said McDonald, noting that “gangs are our main competition.” The school day includes before- and after-school programs, and five extra weeks of school were added during the summer.

These initiatives, plus technology and arts enrichment, increase the per-student cost to $7,500, for which McDonald raises an additional $2.6 million a year by treating donors as “venture philanthropists.”

“Plenty of support is available in the philanthropic world,” said Jane O’Connell, president of the Altman Foundation. This is true despite increased competition for shares of a shrinking charitable pie, since many donors are well aware that faith-based schools offer the best bang for the philanthropic buck especially for the disadvantaged. “Foundations will fund parochial schools if the balance sheets are viable and there’s a solid business plan, even if the fiscal situation isn’t rosy,” O’Connell explained. “Contributors want to see that education officials know what they’re doing – then they’re glad to be part of it.”

Unfortunately administrators at most of the country’s 195 Catholic dioceses don’t know how to draw up a strategic plan with cost and revenue projections and long-term sustainability goals, said O’Connell; “instead, they approach donors to cover operating deficits, which they don’t find appealing.”
To court donors, McDonald produced a coherently articulated plan and instituted professional management systems to ensure financial transparency and accountability. She manages the diocese’s entire system, comprising 30 schools and 8,653 students, with minimal bureaucracy. This centralization enables principals to become full-time education leaders since their time is no longer consumed by fundraising and onerous managerial tasks.

Parish priests are also released from fundraising and supervisory responsibilities for which few are trained to handle. Pastors in Memphis retain their position as their school’s spiritual CEO, and they are responsible for certifying religion teachers (who make no attempt to convert their mostly Protestant students). Implementing this approach would be very transformative nationwide. Highly placed sources in Catholic education admit that the longstanding tension between pastor and principal over school finances has held back the professionalization of Catholic school districts in diocese across the country.

As a vote of confidence in McDonald’s administration, Jubilee’s major donors recently contributed another $10 million to make up for investment devaluations during the recession. If another Great Depression hit tomorrow, “we could survive ten years almost tuition-free without another donation,” said McDonald, who now advises school superintendents from Monterrey, California to New York.
Some dioceses have begun to move in the right direction, but as McDonald said, 70 percent still resist adopting best practices and comprehensive planning. This is potentially fatal in the current economic situation, as 80 percent of remaining Catholic schools enroll fewer than 350 students, meaning few schools can withstand further enrollment losses given the dependence on revenue from tuition. The Archdiocese of New York, the nation’s largest Catholic system, suffered a precipitous six-percent enrollment drop to 88,000 students (down from 220,000 in the 1960s) in 2008-09. Across the East River, the Brooklyn diocese shuttered 14 elementary schools.

Nationwide, 162 Catholic school were shuttered in 2008-09, almost the same as the year before. At first glance it seems Catholic education weathered the economic recession, but enrolment declined by 78,382 students, compared to 49,738 in 2007-08—a 60-percent increase. This portends a huge increase in school closings in the next few years since most Catholic schools desperately need to grow enrollment to avoid insolvency. About 12 percent of Catholic schools enroll 99 students or fewer (about 870 schools), which is financially untenable. For the most part, these schools fell from the 100-to-199 student category in recent years and are barely hanging on. About 30 percent of parochial schools comprise the latter category (about 2,175 schools), and another 37 percent enroll 200 to 349 students (about 2,680 schools). Over half of all these schools are in urban and inner-city areas serving populations with diminishing capacity to pay tuition. Hundreds of Catholic schools could vanish in the near future. The Catholic system could evolve into a small, elite consortium of schools serving affluent Catholics.

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