Karen Asbury, principal of St. Rose School in Northeast Portland, makes a point during a Jan. 20 gathering of educators to discuss a strategic plan for Archdiocese of Portland Schools. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Karen Asbury, principal of St. Rose School in Northeast Portland, makes a point during a Jan. 20 gathering of educators to discuss a strategic plan for Archdiocese of Portland Schools. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

The Archdiocese of Portland plans to respond to growth in suburban Portland with new parishes and schools. Meanwhile, parishes will be urged to invite public school students in catechism classes to consider Catholic education. And while tuition may rise, financial aid will abound all the more, even for middle class families. 

Those were key revelations during a Jan. 20 meeting of 100 western Oregon Catholic pastors and school administrators. The four-hour session, held at St. Pius X Parish in Portland, laid out an early draft of a strategic plan for Catholic education in the region. The collaborative plan, to be completed by March, was shaped by months of meetings, including visits to every Catholic school in the archdiocese.

There are about 15,000 students in western Oregon’s Catholic grade schools and high schools. While the state’s population has surged, Catholic school enrollment has remained even. 

Holy Cross Brother William Dygert, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, told the group that the plan comes at a time of strength, not crisis, and that its aim is to fulfill the church’s mission and secure the future of Catholic schools in the region.

“Catholic schools teach the faith, first and foremost, then teach everything else in light of the faith,” said Brother William, who has announced that he will retire at the end of the school year. He quoted the book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, people perish.”

A fired up Archbishop Alexander Sample, declaring that he is a strong supporter of Catholic schools, told educators to have faith that schools offer what youths need.

“Do we really believe that we have what will make the lives of these young people truly fulfilled and happy?” the archbishop said, punching the air for emphasis.

Ready for growth

Reacting to predicted sharp population growth in southern Washington county and Clackamas County, planners from the Wisconsin-based Meitler consultants suggest that the archdiocese establish new parishes and schools in the areas. Demographers say Washington County alone will have 175,000 new residents by 2025. Happy Valley, Wilsonville, Salem and Medford are other hot spots. The consultants said the archdiocese needs to stay ahead of developers and purchase acreage in those areas before it gets more expensive.   

Much of the growth among Catholics will be made up of Hispanics, said Alan Meitler, vice president of the consulting group.

Consultant Rick Pendergast noted that Catholic schools on the Oregon coast closed years ago, but suggested that new models — K-12 perhaps — might work there.

Some Portland neighborhoods are gentrifying, bringing wealthier residents to Catholic schools but knocking lower income people farther away, said Meitler.

Invite public school students

The plan calls on parishes to invite public school families with children receiving sacraments to consider Catholic school, even if the households are under the impression that tuition is out of their reach.

Pendergast, a longtime Catholic high school principal, said that Oregon Catholic schools enroll only one in five Catholic youngsters active in parishes. The problem, Pendergast said, is insufficient marketing.

He cautioned educators that Catholic identity is important and taken for granted, but is fourth or fifth on the list of what is important to parents seeking a school. “You need to offer something more,” Pendergast said. 

Karen Asbury, principal of St. Rose School in Portland, told her peers that the strategic plan may address the need when it calls for education of the “whole child,” including strong academics, music, art, sports, clubs and community service.

How do we pay for it?

The strategic plan calls for bringing tuition closer to the true cost of education, meaning an increase. But that boost, the plan says, is to be more than offset by increased aid, including to middle class families. 

The collection of school board members, presidents and principals seemed to like the idea, but asked repeatedly how they would pay for it. Already, it takes $100 million in annual revenue to support Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Portland.

“How are we going to fund all this and whose responsibility is it? What kind of support will we get?” asked Merrit Holub, principal of St. John Fisher School.

“Someone at my table just said, ‘Show me the money,’” said David Brands, chairman of the new Catholic Schools Endowment Foundation of Oregon. That group is expected to raise funds to help families afford Catholic schools.

“No Catholic child in the Archdiocese of Portland will ever be denied the opportunity to go to Catholic school because they can’t afford it,” said Archbishop Sample, who wants tuition assistance to be “generous” and “extravagant.”

Meitler said that expected increases in enrollment could make the new tuition model possible. Asked how schools will deal with sticker shock, Meitler suggested increasing tuition gradually and communicating aggressively about aid.

“You don’t keep the bills low, you help the families who can’t pay the bill,” said Brother William, explaining that if tuition dips too far, the quality of the education can sink with it. Meitler said tuition needs to stay at a level that allows good pay for teachers, who are the key to good schools.

During a question session, Kelli Clark, principal of St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland, said the plan failed to address infrastructure needs at schools. Kevin Mannix, who heads a longtime Salem foundation for Catholic school facilities needs, urged that the plan have a similar program archdiocese-wide.

John Garrow, principal of Central Catholic High School suggested that schools share more staff in special programs, decreasing costs and improving services.      

Encountering culture

Meitler said the strategic plan recognizes that western Oregon Catholic schools are on the front lines in a culture that is increasingly secular. That can lead to both challenge and rejoicing.

Father John Henderson, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard with its large school, told the group he has baptized students and their parents who come to embrace Catholicism.

“That is exciting,” Father Henderson said.

Archbishop Sample said Catholic schools exist to form missionary disciples of Christ. He called for “strong and unequivocal” Catholic identity to heal the damaging effects of modern life.

“Schools should not be in confrontation with culture, but should be in contradiction,” the archbishop said. “We cannot simply give in to the culture around us.”