With the new school year underway, the First Friday Club of Cleveland invited Frank O’Linn, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Cleveland, to share information on Catholic schools in the diocese.
Father John Betters, pastor of SS. Robert and William and St. John of the Cross parishes in Euclid and liaison to the Keeping the Faith schools’ initiative, opened the Sept. 1 program with prayer and introduced O’Linn.
(See photo gallery above. Click here to watch the address.)
“I went to grade school with Frank at St. Bernadette School,” he said, noting they diverged in high school with Father Betters opting to attend Saint Ignatius High School while O’Linn chose St. Edward High School. O’Linn later returned to his alma mater and most recently served as an administrator there before joining the diocesan education office. He and his wife are St. Angela Merici parishioners. Three of their children attend St. Angela School and the fourth is a student at Saint Joseph Academy.
“Catholic education is a very American story,” O’Linn said. He shared a brief history of Catholic schools in the area, noting they evolved as immigrants came to Akron and Cleveland to build the Ohio and Erie Canal in the early 1800s, when Ohio was all part of the Diocese of Cincinnati. As the population grew, so did the number of Catholics. The Diocese of Cleveland was established in 1847.
There was a great deal of anti-papal sentiment and a fear of Catholics, O’Linn said, which led to the founding of The Catholic Universe, the diocesan newspaper, in 1874. Catholic parishes and schools also gained a foothold and their numbers increased. They often were staffed by orders of religious sisters.
“They were known for their culture of spirituality, formation of faith and strong morals,” O’Linn said, as well as discipline and piety. “They gave their lives to their vocation,” he said of the religious sisters. “Schools were the heart of the parish. They were known for their excellence. Schools nourished the parish and the parish nourished the families.”
Enrollment in diocesan schools peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, O’Linn said, and began declining after that. Finances and a decline in the number of religious serving in the schools also contributed to the growing challenges facing Catholic schools.
But the vocation of Catholic education remained important, O’Linn said. “The witness of the brothers and sisters who taught me and others can’t be overlooked. It was so important. They were efficient and highly effective with their mission.”
As demographics in the cities changed, the effects were felt in the parishes and schools. O’Linn said Catholic schools welcomed immigrants and even established schools and programs to serve them. “They offered an education to the underprivileged,” he said, calling it “the Catholic school effect” and explaining that it helped many of these students become successful.
O’Linn said school choice plans began evolving as early as 1853, when the bishop asked for a share of the tax funds that supported public schools. His request got a violent, negative reaction. At that time, Protestants openly practiced their faith in the public schools, but Catholics could not do so.
More than a century later, things are much different with nearly 40% of students in Catholic schools benefiting from one of the five state scholarship programs offered. Tax dollars follow students in Ohio and courts have affirmed these programs, O’Linn said. In fact, another option – the Angel Scholarship program – launched this year. It is a tax credit that has no cost to the taxpayer and allows an individual to receive a 100% tax credit for up to $750 in cash donations to a scholarship granting entity like Catholic schools in the diocese. O’Linn said efforts are ongoing to share the information. “We need to get people to embrace it. It works,” he added. “It’s our moonshot.”
As schools continue to face challenges, O’Linn said diocesan officials are working to find solutions. Bishop Edward Malesic launched the Keeping the Faith initiative to strengthen Catholic elementary schools during Catholic Schools Week in 2021. The task force has been meeting regularly to tackle various aspects of their mission with Father Betters acting as the bishop’s liaison. KTF is focusing on Catholic identity, academic quality, leadership and talent, finances, governance and branding and marketing as they look to the future of Catholic education in diocesan elementary schools and work on recommendations to present to the bishop.
“We (the Catholic schools) are not one size fits all. We must strengthen our schools,” he said, adding, “Catholic education should be the responsibility of the whole Church.”
O’Linn said increasing educational costs, a decrease in the number of students and schools, teacher retention, salaries and technology are among the challenges facing the Catholic schools.
But there is good news, he said, pointing to a slight enrollment increase in 2021-2022. Elementary numbers are flat, while high school and pre-K programs have shown an increase. O’Linn said, surveys have shown people who attend a Catholic school are seven times more likely to practice their faith. “The mission is taking root. Catholic schools are helping to bring people back to the faith,” he added.
O’Linn also said the Catholic schools recognized many years ago that students with special needs must be included. As a result, programs have evolved like a partnership with Julie Billiart Schools and the Better Together initiative.
He also credited the education office staff, leadership in the schools, the staff and teachers for their dedication, especially during the pandemic. “Leadership matters,” O’Linn said, noting the schools have high quality teachers. “Excellence happens on purpose,” he added.
“Formation is our mission and schools are our business. Catholic schools are meant to transform families and lives in conjunction with Jesus Christ,” O’Linn said.
Before the program started, Patrick McCarthy was introduced as the new president of the First Friday Club as Bill Prebel’s term ended. Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Roger Gries offered a blessing over McCarthy and other members of the club’s new and old leadership team.
McCarthy also expressed thanks to Benedictine High School, which sponsored O’Linn’s program.
The next First Friday program will be Oct. 6. Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy will speak on “Ending the Death Penalty and Promoting Restorative Justice.” Click here for more information.