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Saving Schools

Saving Schools
By France Griggs Sloat

Robert Bueter, S.J., lifts a series of maps onto a round table in his office and studies the collection of red and black dots scattered across the pages. The red dots, each representing a loss of 20 school-age children, are clustered in the older Cincinnati neighborhoods. Larger shapes interspersed among them depict the many Catholic schools struggling to serve students who aren’t there anymore. But north of the I-275 beltway are hundreds of black dots, each representing an increase of 20 children. Noticeably absent, however, are school buildings.

“The maps tell me where the schools should be,” Bueter says.

For example, in Butler County, where the Lakota public school district struggles each year with growing enrollment, a flurry of black dots represents 6,000 Catholic families in two parishes—but no grade school. Most of the children attend the public schools. The scenario is repeated in a ring of suburbs stretching west to east beyond the beltway in neighborhoods where families moved in but the Catholic schools did not.

Despite the declining Catholic school enrollment, Bueter has a vision. Ordained in 1973, the Jesuit educator has worked passionately in Catholic education, literally saving floundering high schools in Lexington, Ky., and Chicago. In January 2007, Bueter came to Xavier as associate director of the newly founded Center for Catholic Education, which aims to improve and enhance Catholic education in the Cincinnati region by lending its expertise and resources to local Catholic schools.

“The idea of a center was floated to ensure the long-term health and stability of Catholic education in our region,” says the center’s director, Mike Flick. “A lot of Catholic schools today are experiencing declining enrollment, which creates a financial burden on a parish and makes the feasibility of operating a school questionable. There are a whole lot of ways we can help. Our charge was to make the resources of Xavier available to the schools.”

With Bueter leading the day-to-day operations and Flick overseeing the mission, the center has in its short 12 months refocused existing programs and added new ones. Aided by a partnership with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Catholic Schools Office, it sponsored two summits on Catholic education, presented a nationally known speaker on parenting and discipline, and held a workshop for educators, a leadership scholars program for teenage students and a program for middle-school students on the topic of bullying.

But the center’s most enduring impact has been its education programs. The Initiative for Catholic Schools, which began with a $3-million grant from the Buenger Foundation in 2004, came under the center’s wing last January and graduated its first class of 100 students in June after they completed professional development courses in math and science instruction and administrative leadership. The remaining grant money is now supporting a second class of Catholic school teachers and principals from 15 new schools, and Flick expects a third class to complete the program next year.

Mary Ann Ellerbrock was an early success story. A seventh-grade teacher from St. Vivian Elementary for 13 years, Ellerbrock landed a job as assistant principal at another school, St. Columban in the growing suburb of Loveland after completing the program.

“That summer when I came into this job interview, I had to laugh because so many of the questions aligned so closely with what we’d talked about in class,” she says. “I was pretty well prepared for the interview. It was amazing the way it all fell into place. That was the goal—to move teachers into administration. It was so exciting to get the position.”

In January, the center started a new program for Catholic school educators who are seeking a Master of Education. About 60 students signed up for the program, taking advantage of a nearly 60-percent discount in tuition.

“Our goal is to assure Catholic school teachers are viewed equally or as more competent than public school teachers,” Flick says. “They need to be highly qualified with a master’s degree and a state teacher’s license. Our goal is making sure teachers and administrators are perceived as being professional, and Xavier is in a position to do that with a discount.”

Xavier also discounts graduate-level tuition costs for all Catholic educators working in a Catholic school.

Bueter, who’s teaching two of the classes, says he’s sharing his maps and the sobering demographics about declining enrollment in Catholic schools with his students in hopes of drawing Catholic families back from the public schools.

“That’s why it’s important to do this program,” he says. “The new programs can educate people to the reality of the situation. Some parents think they can have good education in the public schools without good religion and morality under them. But schooling is what we’re about here, and religion is what makes us better.”

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