Michelle Scherzinger, first-grade teacher at All Saints, orients students on the first day of class. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Michelle Scherzinger, first-grade teacher at All Saints, orients students on the first day of class. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Leaders of western Oregon Catholic schools will get a briefing late this month on findings from an extensive study of the system. Pastors, principals, presidents and school boards will gather in Hillsboro and Eugene to listen, but also give input on what Catholic schools need to do as they move deeper into the 21st century.

“People plan so they can choose their future,” says Holy Cross Brother William Dygert, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese. “We are not planning because we have a problem. The system is in good shape and we want that to be true 10, 15 and 20 years from now. We want to be proactive as opposed to being reactive.”

A team from Wisconsin-based Meitler consultants visited every Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Portland seeking information on Catholic identity, academics, enrollment, tuition, funding and leadership. The effort aims to identify strengths, weaknesses and possible threats — and then set a unified course of action.

A committee will take the findings and draft a plan by January. Once the document is finalized, it will go out to schools, which will decide how best to implement it in their particular circumstances. Parents and parishioners likely will be involved at that time.

“The energy will be on implementation — who will do what by when and what the resources are we need to get there,” Brother William says.

Enrollment has remained steady overall at Oregon’s Catholic schools, whereas the numbers have been dropping in the Midwest and East since about 2006. The Oregon study found demographic shifts, identifying major population growth in the Portland area and elsewhere. As some Portland neighborhoods gentrify, families that might want a Catholic school are being priced out, says a draft of the findings.

It’s possible that new schools will open in regions that have seen population booms.

No schools will close as part of the plan, Brother William says. In some areas, including rural communities, the archdiocese may need to “get creative” to maintain schools’ viability and quality, he says. One option is classrooms with students of many ages, a setup some modern education scholars have praised.

There are 10 Catholic high schools in western Oregon and 40 grade schools. Only a handful of schools are in rural areas.

Brother William says the primary focus of the planning is maintaining Catholic identity: “We need to make sure schools exist to pass on the faith. Passing on the faith means passing on a Catholic world view.”

Academics are also on the table. Brother William cautions parents against believing that schools of tomorrow should be like the schools of yesterday. As knowledge content changes rapidly, he says, it’s important that schools not only teach facts, but also cultivate thinking, problem-solving and a thirst for lifelong learning. One of the findings in the draft says Catholic schools ought to do more for students with advanced abilities.

Also to be reflected in the plan is the anguish school leaders feel when families can’t afford tuition. Brother William says the solution is to help people pay the bill, not cheapen the product. The archdiocese has reincorporated the Catholic Education Endowment Fund as a way to help schools distribute financial aid.