04/25/2016 by Bob Regan |

The 22% Factor: Hard Choices for Catholic Schools

blurred traditional classroom with single wooden desks and students in uniform

As I have argued in another post, Catholic schools are vital to the communities they serve and have emerged in recent years as the institutions of choice for families of all religious traditions, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. The appeal lies clearly in the extraordinary value proposition they represent: a unique synergy of four key elements:

  • high-quality, independent education;
  • safe, nurturing environment with a focus on the holistic development of children;
  • values-based, spiritually enriched student experience grounded in Catholic identity but welcoming of families and children from all religious beliefs;
  • a price point – though increasingly challenged these days – that is reasonably affordable to average American families.

A powerful value proposition indeed.

That said, Catholic schools are also increasingly at risk as intractable market and demographic forces are conspiring to render traditional business models and once-reliable leadership profiles obsolete. According to the latest Pew Research, more than 40 million Americans have abandoned their Catholic faith in the last generation, and only 22% of Americans self-identify as Catholic today. These trends have caused enormous market disruption, forcing the closing of thousands of local parishes and parish-based elementary schools. At the secondary level, Catholic schools can no longer rely on their privileged “feeder systems” to provide the kind of structural guarantee they have enjoyed for decades. These once-massive and almost viral feeder systems continue to erode with the closing of more than 5,000 Catholic elementary schools in the past two decades, and many more are projected to close in the coming months and years. The broad-based pyramid of endless student referrals eagerly competing for limited seats at the top has been reduced to a solitary and rapidly diminishing silo – inadequate to support the enrollment needs of even the smallest of secondary schools.

As a result, it is commonly understood that Catholic secondary schools must adapt to the threatening new realities or go out of business. They must learn to compete for students in the open market. They will also need to raise their profiles and powerful value proposition in the community and learn tocreate demand for their services. And they will need to do this in an increasingly competitive environment, which includes outstanding charter, magnet, and International Baccalaureate (IB) schools funded generously by taxpayers.

Clearly this is not business as usual for Catholic schools. And it is certainly not leadership as usual.Perhaps for the first time in the history of Catholic schools in America, the future of these vital institutions may rely squarely on the quality and efficacy of the leaders they are able to attract. But here’s the rub:

When it comes to the available pool of qualified Catholic school leaders, there is a vast and growing disconnect between supply and demand.

The demand for visionary leaders with passion for mission and Catholic identity has never been greater, and yet the supply is alarmingly inadequate and not showing signs of improvement. Colleges and universities with prominent Catholic Leadership Institutes have recognized this problematic disconnect and have launched strategic efforts to “grow our own.” However, they have not been able to achieve scale in a timely enough manner, and their focus is largely on producing operationally-sound “Principals,” not entrepreneurial chief executives. This is not a criticism. It’s what they know – and what they do – exceedingly well.

As a result, governing boards and search committees are beginning to ask an increasingly important and provocative new question:

Given the acute market risks we face, and the rare qualities required for effective Catholic school leadership today, does our next Head of School also need to self-identify as a practicing Catholic? Must we restrict our leadership choices to 22% of the population in America?

This is an especially vexing question for Catholic schools facing imminent threats and needing bold, transformational leadership. The thought of eliminating 78% of the potential candidate pool is disconcerting and places a trustee’s fiduciary duty at odds with fidelity to mission. What if this means we overlook the “best player in the draft” –that rare, transformational leader who can preserve our mission, expand our capacity to support more children and families, and, in short, make us proud? Do we trade off dynamic and proven leadership for the vagaries of a numinous and deeply personal quality – i.e., “practicing Catholic” – which is difficult to validate and nearly impossible to define?

Moreover, what are the risks of getting this hiring decision wrong? If we select a superb, faith-filled leader who happens to be non-Catholic, are we on a slippery slope to secularization and insidious mission drift?  Is that a price worth paying? On the other hand, if we choose an ardent, practicing Catholic who is wholesome, inspiring and orthodox, but essentially incapable of leading our school to a better place, are we acting as responsible stewards and fiduciaries? Is this a false choice?

In the next two posts, I will explore the issue of Catholic identity and mission and what truly constitutes a “Catholic” school – i.e., what’s fungible, and therefore replaceable, and what’s elemental and therefore not replaceable – and how this might impact our choice of Catholic school leadership? Following this identity exercise, I will review what I believe are the three fundamental and hard choices available to Catholic schools in dealing with the 22% factor. I hope you will stay with us.

Part II coming next week!

Bob Regan is the leader of the CS&A Search Group’s Catholic Schools Practice.  He can be reached at bob.regan@carneysandoe.com.

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