For 175 years, the Diocese of Cleveland has had a long and rich history of vital service to the Catholic faithful and the wider community of Northeast Ohio. Recent decades have brought challenges to the Catholic education sector, particularly affecting parish elementary schools, which have declined significantly both in the number of students and schools serving the elementary grades.
Historically, Catholic elementary schools in this diocese have been largely decentralized, with the diocese playing a limited and responsive role, assisting pastors and parishes as they operated with autonomy. This plan calls for engagement of the wider Catholic community in collaboration to strengthen Catholic school education, including greater diocesan-led school support, while respecting the principle of subsidiarity.
Nationally, the Diocese of Cleveland has one of the largest Catholic school enrollments, providing a quality education centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is valuable to those of faith and all people of goodwill, a vital good for the future of the Church and of society. The Keeping the Faith strategic plan is intended to meet the challenges of the day and capitalize on new opportunities in order to renew the mission and deepen the commitment for the future of Catholic elementary education in the Diocese of Cleveland.
The Keeping the Faith strategic plan can trace its origins to a letter Father John Betters sent to Archbishop Nelson Perez inquiring about the direction of elementary schools in the diocese. Seeking to understand the state of Catholic education in the diocese, Archbishop Perez called for an ad hoc “think tank,” which produced a report in spring 2019 outlining both challenges and opportunities and emphasizing the need for a strategic master plan.
Groundwork for the Keeping the Faith process began later that year, but it was hampered by the onset of the global pandemic in early 2020. Preparations resumed in late 2020, following the installation of Bishop Edward Malesic. The process formally launched in January 2021. Since then, more than 60 individuals, consisting of diverse professionals from throughout the diocese representing the variety of schools, parishes and organizations throughout our eight counties, have participated in task force committees. Hundreds more participated in listening sessions to hear about proposed change ideas in the winter and spring of 2021-2022.
The plan is a diocesan initiative, created at the direction of Bishop Malesic. Its process was led by a steering committee representing critical areas from the field and the diocese.
The Keeping the Faith strategic plan is the result of nearly two years of collaboration, listening, prioritizing and strategizing. It affirms the overarching purpose and value of Catholic education, and envisions an evolution in how elementary schools deliver on this purpose to ultimately strengthen what the schools provide. This document introduces the context, vision and strategic goals of the plan, organized around six interwoven areas of focus. The specific goals enumerated in the plan are expected to take five years to accomplish, but the shifts in direction, including greater collaboration, transparency, communication and support, should proceed for generations to come.
Before the Diocese of Cleveland was founded in 1847, there were no parish elementary schools in the region until Bishop Louis Amadeus Rappe, first bishop of Cleveland, established 16 parishes and parish schools and a cathedral school for the Catholic population that was growing rapidly through immigration. Three Plenary Councils of Baltimore (1852-1884) combatted the strong anti-Catholic sentiment of the day by urging the establishment of Catholic schools by parishes, decreeing that: “Pastors and parents should not rest” until every parish “has schools adequate to meet the needs of its children.”
By the dawn of the 20th century, most of the region’s Catholic elementary schools were parish-based, a tuition-free or low-cost alternative to public schools that was funded by parishes and staffed largely by consecrated religious and clergy, along with a small number of lay people.
Catholic schools were created to educate young people in the faith, forming disciples for the good of the Church and the wider community. They grew along with the Catholic population, earning a well-deserved reputation for discipline of study, spirituality and formation in the faith, reaching a peak of over 64,000 students in the early 1970s.
In the decades that followed, schools were challenged by shifting demographic patterns, an increasingly competitive educational landscape, declines in the number of practicing Catholics and rising costs of providing quality schooling. The number of students decreased threefold to 37,852 prior to the Keeping the Faith process.
As the communities who founded parishes in urban cities moved and built new parishes in expanding suburbs, other communities — often of other recently arrived people – replaced them. Even where few families were Catholic, schools continued to serve, especially immigrants and the poor. In the words of Cardinal James Aloysius Hickey, the Church serves “... not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic. If we don’t care for the sick, educate the young and care for the homeless, then we cannot call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ.”
These decades also saw opportunity, including the dawn of state-funded school choice scholarships — sometimes called vouchers — that began in the 1990s and have grown considerably. Furthermore, through the prolonged decline, some schools and parishes innovated, including the creation of several collaborative institutions, inter-parish schools, school networks and independent schools sponsored by parishes and one completely independent elementary school.
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