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A Gift From God?

Thanks to an anonymous multimillion-dollar donation, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis is reopening six inner-city schools. It's a noble gesture, but does it make sense?

by Ashley Fantz

t. Augustine Elementary School stands on Kerr Avenue like a reminder.

Two stone angels, kneeling in prayer, frame its glass doors. A small bulldozer rests on a grassless patch of playground yards away from rusting football goalposts. The building itself, brown brick spiked with a tall gable, dresses up a neighborhood dotted with houses with chipping paint and porches covered in weeds.

Four years ago, children filled the now-vacant rooms of St. Augustine. For almost 50 years, the Midtown school was, as one Catholic school employee describes, "a second home for children who didn't always have the best home to go to after 3:00." It closed in 1995.

"Working together, home, school, and church

Letting God's word guide our plan and work

Where we share our joys, our hopes, and visions

Putting prayer before all of our decisions."

So goes the Memphis Catholic school system mantra, a promise to its students. But, as neighborhood populations shifted east to the suburbs and low-income families moved in, six schools, including St. Augustine, suffered crippling blows. The school closings, all within 30 years' time, seemed to indicate that private religious education was losing its stronghold in the city.

Everything changed a few weeks ago when the Catholic Diocese of Memphis received from a group of anonymous donors a multimillion-dollar contribution for the specified purpose of reopening all six schools. St. Augustine will open first, offering kindergarten classes for the 1999-2000 school year. The other schools are Blessed Sacrament, St. Joseph, St. John, St. Therese Little Flower, and Holy Names (see below).

Reviving the schools, dubbed the "Jubilee Schools," by Diocesan Bishop J. Terry Steib, has, however, divided some students, parents, and school officials. Although no one contests the generosity of the act, some question whether the reopenings are pragmatic.

Will the donated funds cover long-term operation of the schools?

Two Catholic schools in Louisville, Kentucky, comparable to the Memphis schools, cost together more than $1 million yearly to operate. That figure doesn't include teacher salaries and benefits. Add computers to the classrooms and you tag on thousands more dollars. Bringing the old buildings up to code will be costly. Will the donation cover those staggering renovation expenses and a planned scholarship program for families who cannot afford tuition?

Sister Mary Della Quinn, dean of mission and religious studies at St. Agnes Academy, is one of many posing those questions to the Diocese. She witnessed the closing of Little Flower Elementary on Jackson Avenue and St. Joseph Elementary on Neely Road during her administrative tenure with the Catholic Diocese in the mid-'80s.

"The St. Joseph building was in bad shape over 15 years ago," she says. "And St. Augustine only closed four years ago. The building's in great shape, but they couldn't get the pupils. What's going to be different now? It doesn't matter if someone gave $30 million; it just costs so much to run a school even for a year."

Quinn, like others within the Catholic school system, suggests that the reopenings are acts of nostalgia and that the money should pay for upgrading existing schools, increasing teacher salaries, and providing technology for more classrooms.

"It was terrible when these schools closed," she says. "I'm sure the thinking was, 'Wouldn't it be joyous if we could open them again. It would be a great act.' But, I doubt that anyone took a hard look at all of the financial obstacles.'

The Secret Samaritans

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men ... when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets." -- Matthew 6:1

Whatever the donation amount -- which no one except Bishop Steib, Superintendent of Catholic Schools Mary McDonald, and Diocese accountants knows -- it must be large enough to cover the addition of seventh and eighth grades to St. Michael on Summer Avenue, St. Anne on Highland, and Immaculate Conception Elementary on Central Avenue. The Diocese announced that it will use donation funds to institute those grades for the upcoming and subsequent school years. Account controller Eddie Waldrup confirms that the Diocese is receiving the money in increments.

"It is God's wish that we educate as many children as we can," Superintendent McDonald says. "We don't ever want to close these schools again. Our Mr. Anonymous will stay anonymous. It's not important to know now how much was given. Let's just consider it a miracle."

McDonald calls the donation "seed money," "a significant dent" in the funding required to open and operate these schools. Adding a grade each year, the projected completion date for full operation of all schools is 2007. However, a long-term financial plan to generate complementary funds that will ensure the schools continue to thrive has not been drafted -- a tough task when most Catholic school officials don't know the donation amount. McDonald's office has instructed all church officials, Catholic charity workers, and Catholic school employees not to talk to the press about the donation or school reopenings. That includes Sally Hermsdorfer, who will oversee the reopenings as the newly appointed assistant superintendent for educational expansion.

Churches and not-for-profit religious organizations -- including church-owned schools -- are not legally obligated to file an IRS Form 990 or 501 C-3 detailing fiscal-year donations. The Diocese is audited yearly by the accounting firm Rhea & Ivy. CPA Christy Bradley has audited the Diocese for a number of years and usually begins work on the report in September. She says she's not yet seen paperwork concerning the donation. When the Diocese is eventually audited, says Bradley, the report will not be available to the public until next February when the Diocese publishes the audit results in an annual newsletter.

Counting the Cost

"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower? Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost that he have sufficient to finish it?" -- Luke 14:28

Sister Mary Della Quinn has spent 45 years in Catholic school ministry and eight in Memphis Diocesan administration. A year before St. Joseph and Little Flower Elementary shut down, Quinn participated in a six-month study conducted by McDonald's predecessor, former superintendent of Catholic schools Bill Hoyt. The study examined possible reasons for the dire conditions at Little Flower and St. Joseph. The administrators' ultimate goal was to determine what had caused enrollment to fall.

Following a set of guidelines designed by the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, D.C., Hoyt examined neighborhood demographics, the number and religious affiliation of students already enrolled in the schools, and those who had recently dropped out. The study found that very few Catholics lived near the schools. It also confirmed that the neighborhoods were primarily low income, explaining why few people could afford the schools' tuition costs. The study projected "insufficient present and future populations" to warrant reopening either school.

McDonald's office did not conduct a similar study before deciding to revive the schools. Director of Diocesan communications John Morris wrote in a press release that the only study planned is one that will "address future expansion and construction" for other Diocesan projects.

Without scrutinizing the demographics of the neighborhoods surrounding the schools, which the Diocese is counting on for its largest enrollment, Quinn is skeptical that the schools have a good chance at long-term survival.

Hecht Construction, Inc., was contracted to renovate St. Augustine. Owner Bill Hecht says minor renovation of two classrooms and construction of more office space for the administration cost the Diocese $54,000.

St. Augustine is in "great condition," he says. He and a six-member crew spent two weeks replacing old fiber tiles in classroom ceilings with fire-code approved tiles. The classrooms have window air-conditioners. A rooftop air-conditioning unit was installed in a new administrative addition.

Hecht is familiar with the other Jubilee School buildings because he's worked on them for other projects. His company built the St. John and Little Flower day-care facilities.

"Day-care and educational facilities have the most stringent codes," he says. "I can't say for sure until I see some plans, but [renovating] those facilities will be costly."

Learning by Example

"I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." -- John 13:15

Louisville, Kentucky, is comparable to Memphis in its history of Catholic education. In 1996 and 1997, the Louisville Diocese built two Catholic schools -- St. Michaels and St. Patricks. Louisville Superintendent of Catholic Schools Lisa Speer says the schools were opened because many young families moved to certain areas of the city and wanted to send their children to schools associated with their neighborhood parishes. Similar to what's planned for the Memphis schools, St. Michaels began with pre-school, then added grades one through three over the following two years. Yearly tuition to attend Memphis' St. Augustine and Louisville's St. Michaels averages about $2,800 per child.

According to St. Michaels principal Sheila Marstiller, it costs $15,000 to furnish one classroom. That figure includes basic materials such as desks, globes, maps, pencil sharpeners, and other supplies. The classrooms are low-tech, meaning they do not have VCRs, televisions, or computers.

"The school's budget is ultimately contingent on its curriculum," Marstiller says. "We have a reading series for kindergarten through third grade next year that costs about $40,000."

Marstiller points out that serving younger students -- as St. Augustine plans to do initially -- often costs more than schooling older students.

"Younger children need more things because they require more hands-on instruction. You've got to buy carpet and big book cases, compartment things," she says. "They end up costing much more money than older kids who don't need as many frills."

St. Michaels' projected 1999-2000 school year budget is $400,000 -- or roughly $100,000 per grade.

"We knew that there was a demand for the schools," Marstiller says. "It's stressful sometimes, but the reward is seeing how much these children love to come to school."

Little Exodus

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them..." -- Matthew 19:14

Another issue facing Diocese officials is the relocation of day-care facilities now operating at St. Therese Little Flower, St. John's, and Holy Names. Director of Catholic Charities Kevin Hickey says it's too soon to tell where the day-care centers will move, but Hickey is hoping to keep them in the schools' vicinities in order to continue to serve their mostly low-income families. Hickey says the Diocese has ample time before the renovation on the schools begins to decide what to do with the programs.

"We just don't know yet how that will all take shape," Hickey says. "We'll move the child-care facilities elsewhere, but that's four to six years out."

There exists within the Memphis Diocese an overwhelming belief that the donation will positively affect underprivileged children. Superintendent McDonald's hope is that children who attend Diocese-run day-cares will eventually enroll in a Jubilee School. Secretary of Associated Catholic Charities Brian O'Malley says the donation is a symbolic gesture implying that Catholic education makes up in value-based education what public schools sometimes lack.

"They [the donors] clearly had the resources to apply, in a very directed way, toward a problem of poverty and moral poverty in our community and nationwide," he says. "Whoever the donor is recognizes that Catholic schools take a value-based approach to education."

Disagreeing with the Diocese

"I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian -- brother will fight against brother, neighbor against neighbor." -- Isaiah 19:2

Jessica Swan is known around Immaculate Conception High School as a student volunteer, an honor student, and a book worm. The junior has always been a proponent of the Catholic school system because she appreciates its commitment to small classes and its dress code, which de-emphasizes popularity contests.

Swan disagrees with how the Diocese plans to spend the donation dollars, suggesting that the funds should go to upgrading already operating schools. The money, she asserts, could pay teachers' salaries and buy better technology for classrooms.

"I've had excellent teachers," she says. "But I've seen many leave because they weren't paid what they were worth. You hear a lot about the fact that teachers aren't appreciated enough and here's a chance to show them that we do. I'm not saying that I don't appreciate the donors' intentions, but the money could be used in a better way."

A National Catholic Educational Association survey conducted this year titled, "The Teachers We Need and How to Get More of Them," revealed that Tennessee, along with 15 other states, had difficulty recruiting teachers for the 1998-1999 school year at either the elementary or secondary level due to, among other reasons, low salary offerings. All Memphis Catholic school teachers are on the same pay scale. Average median salary for lay teachers is $23,000, below the national salary standard of $26,800. The national maximum salary averages $34,400, a number slightly exceeding what tenured Memphis Catholic teachers earn. Memphis Catholic teacher pay was lower before the Diocese instituted a 15 percent salary hike two years ago.

Finding experienced teachers who are willing to receive lower-than-average salaries could present problems for the new schools. Swan argues that beginning teachers may not have the experience necessary to deal with the challenges of Holy Names, located near Chelsea, a street known for its crime problems.

Sister Quinn agrees that experienced teachers would better serve the needs of students attending Holy Names.

"Can we afford to pay for the highest quality teachers?" she asks. "It's logical to ask that if we aren't keeping them at the other schools, how will we keep them at a school like Holy Names?"

Another Catholic institution is offering to help. Christian Brothers University president Stan Sobczyk is hoping to partner the college's 10-year-old teacher certification program with the Diocese to help meet teacher hiring needs. Because the six schools are opening gradually over a period of years, Sobczyk is confident CBU's program can provide enough well-trained graduates for full-time Diocesan employment.

"We have trained our students to be teachers, and to understand the culture of the Catholic school -- how different they are from other institutions," he says.

Sobczyk has talked about the partnership with superintendent McDonald, but no formal agreement about the coalition has been made. Ideally, CBU and the Diocese would work together, providing lesson-plan workshops for experienced and beginning teachers.

How much in-classroom experience a teacher has does not wholly determine how effectively they instruct, Sobczyk says.

"Catholic schools have a culture of quality education, good discipline, and values that set a tone for students," he says. "Veteran teachers are capable of that, sure, but I'd like to think that when I first went out to teach I had an impact on kids from day one. A teacher is effective if they have a full understanding of gospel values and that there is a time for prayer in our schools. Kids wherever they live respond to positive teachers who ultimately know how to touch their hearts."

Sobczyk recently returned to Memphis from Rome and has worked in ministerial education in California.

"I've never seen anything like this donation happen anywhere else," he says. "It represents a commitment to Memphis' new immigrants and the economically poor."

While the Diocese is praised for giving partial scholarships to low-income families, parents whose children already attend other Catholic schools say they want a tuition break that the donation could support. Jessica Swan's mother Catherine Swan says the donated money could have helped lower yearly tuition costs. She paid about $3,200 to send her daughter to Immaculate Conception two years ago. Last year she paid $3,600. Next year, she'll pay $4,000.

"I'm so satisfied with Jessica's education that I would pay whatever it took for her to have it," Swan says. "But it is frustrating to keep paying more every year."

Blessing in Disguise

"For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Such men deserve recognition." -- Corinthians 16:18

The announcement that partial scholarships would be granted to the Jubilee Schools led some to believe another organization known for championing scholarships for the underprivileged, the Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Fund, might have donated the money. For the upcoming school year, the organization gave 600 children in kindergarten through fifth grade money to attend private schools. Top officials deny any involvement, as does Memphis' Partners in Public Education. Otherwise known as PIPE, the organization's board of directors is a who's who list of wealthy Memphis activists such as Peggy Seessel, David Wayne Brown of advertising agency Conaway Brown, and Jocelyn P. Rudner, daughter of Abe Plough of the Plough Foundation.

Board of directors president Nancy Bogatin says she isn't surprised that PIPE was suspected of giving the donation. "Clearly the donation is a positive thing," she says. "If someone on the board gave the money, they did it privately."

Associate superintendent of public schools Dennis Hirsch says the reopening of the schools will have a minimal effect on public education.

"Public and private schools have always co-existed very well," Hirsch says. "It's really too early to tell whether a group of students will transfer to these schools, but I don't anticipate that happening to any large extent."

Although there is much uncertainty surrounding the donation, from who gave it to how it will be spent, it has accomplished one indisputable good -- returning attention to the possibility of private school in the inner city.

Father Joseph Kerrigan, an instructor at Immaculate Conception High School says, "Right now, the conversation has swung back to where it needs to go. People are saying Catholic school and inner city in the same breath. That hasn't happened in 30 years."

As finishing touches are made on St. Augustine Elementary, the Catholic Diocese announced its search for Catholic school alumni and volunteers to help with the school's inaugural homecoming events.

"We want the whole community to rejoice in this gift, not just those who are Catholic," Superintendent McDonald says.

Speaking like the prophet Jeremiah who purchased a plot of land many assumed worthless only to later discover it was the mythic land of milk and honey, McDonald forges ahead with reopening the schools and fulfilling the wishes of the donators, despite dissenting voices.

"Some will find excuses not to support this," she says. "But that will not deter us from our mission of expanding Catholic education."


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