When the diocese in Memphis shut down the once promising Jubilee Catholic Schools, I was surprised like many others in the Catholic education community. What happened, and what can we learn from it?
There is a range of views, but a diagnosis of lessons learned from what we can see from outside Memphis is in order. An autopsy is a growth opportunity to learn from failure. A post mortem of a failed school or network requires a thorough examination to determine the cause and manner of the failure and an evaluation of any practices or characteristics that may be present for further research, network development or educational purposes. These procedures, while tough, are vital if other Catholic schools and networks hope to avoid the same fate and, instead, thrive in an ever-diversifying educational marketplace.
Good leaders learn from failure. To do that, we need to understand what happened in Memphis. Here is what I learned from a post mortem of Jubilee Schools, along with solutions to transform Catholic education—especially in high-poverty communities.
Get the Right People on the Bus
- Jubilee reached out for help, but it wasn’t enough. Transformative Catholic leaders can’t go it alone. Working together is a required ability. All of us working in the new model of Catholic Schools need to stand and learn together. The shock our community experienced in the wake of the decision to close Jubilee Schools proves this point. Transformative leaders seek help when they need it.
- Jubilee struggled to integrate non-Catholic students into its schools. Catholic education is complex as are the needs of families and children. A successful Catholic school requires leaders who understand the students, communities and families they serve. Some are not Catholic, but they selected a Catholic School. Jubilee struggled like other high-poverty schools to address this.
- Jubilee stalled out after its founder left in 2012. Losing a founder is challenging. Leadership means so much, and successful schools don’t reach equilibrium unless and until they have the right leader. Unfortunately, Jubilee lost its way after its founder left, and by the fall of 2018, Jubilee were just some desks in the Memphis Diocese offices.
- Successful Catholic school leaders understand that if Catholic education is going to continue in America, it is going to be a fight. Public schools are not going to give up market share willingly, and most dioceses are not comfortable with a transformational model that requires flexibility and sometimes even changes to governance, funding or educators’ skill sets.
- Catholic school leaders that thrive in high-poverty settings are hard to find. Successful schools cross sectors and retain leadership and teachers that understand that this is the hardest work in schools. Growing your own is just as important as the recruitment strategy.
- Too many Catholic school leaders have low expectations. Catholic school leaders are quick to accept a slow decline in enrollment, underfunding and high turnover of talent as the norm. Talent follows talent. Good Catholic school leaders and educators have choices. The best opted not to choose Jubilee. Teacher turnover was never addressed. Teachers stay in schools where they are valued and engaged by the school leader, but teachers leaving each year became part of the narrative.
Money and Management Really, Really Matter
- Funding a school with philanthropy alone isn’t a safe financial model or plan. Most new schools or networks require an infusion of philanthropic funding. These funds are necessary for start up but must not be counted on to sustain the school or network because donors give up or move on. Jubilee’s leaders did not diversify their funder base. When their few donors stopped giving, Jubilee, like other Catholic schools, learned the hard way that single or a few donors do not make a financially vibrant organization. Jubilee donor fatigue was real. When the donor left the concert hall, so did the schools, and kids and families were left scrambling.
- Jubilee stuck with an outdated Catholic school financial model, one that is dependent on parish funding and tuition. Neither is feasible in the communities many of our schools serve. The families simply don’t have the money. Parishes usually aren’t in a position to fund schools via a subsidy because they are in poor communities. Let’s face it: Tuition models don’t work anymore with the rising costs and range of school choices in many communities. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Schools require competent business management principles and predictable revenue. An outdated financial model coupled with leadership’s choice to think within the walls of tradition rather than innovation are at the root of the failure in Memphis.
- Vouchers or other school choice programs, such as tax-credit scholarships, may be necessary to make Catholic schools affordable for low-income families. Despite parents’ support for the expansion of options, political pressures have prevented school choice from coming to fruition in Tennessee. These programs, where public money follows each student, empower families to choose the right schooling option for their children—opening the door to Catholic education that might otherwise be closed under the traditional tuition- and philanthropy-only model.
- Public-private partnerships are necessary. Just think if a university, college or other nonprofit could have stepped in. Sharing back offices or staff creates funding that may attract new donors looking for innovation. The new charter group is going to do just that, according to recent reports.
- Linking each school to a prosperous faith-based school to share resources might have sustained these schools beyond the tuition-and-donor model. Each school could learn from each other and the kids and families would be more prepared for the realities of post K–12 education. Banding together into a private school management organization could have saved the day.
Our kids deserve the choice of Catholic education, and we can benefit from the lessons Jubilee Schools have taught us.
Catholic schools will continue to decline or meet a similar fate to Jubilee if there isn’t a better option than the traditional leadership Catholic schools have offered in the past 20 years. Reformers within the Catholic schooling community recognize that we must change, and we are doing our best to discover best practices. Transparency and collaboration are the name of the game if you want to overcome the barriers to creating sustainable successful Catholic schools.
Though it may be hard to see failure, we choose to not accept it, but rather to learn from it. We believe in the potential of Catholic schools, and one day, we know students and families in every city will have access to Catholic school options that are sustainable and vibrant.