As soon as Archbishop Robert Carlson arrived in St. Louis last year, he made clear that improving Catholic schools was his top priority.
Enrollment throughout the 11-county archdiocese had been steadily declining for four decades. Concern that schools were losing their Catholic identity was growing. In the city's core, where white Catholics have left some neighborhoods, demographic shifts had some parish schools struggling financially.
Carlson vowed to tackle the problems even if it meant taking on potentially contentious issues, such as moving resources from wealthier parishes to struggling ones, and restructuring tuition.
So for the last year, he has been meeting with national experts as well as parents, teachers and pastors to develop strategies to improve Catholic schools. In doing so, Carlson is positioning the St. Louis Archdiocese to follow the lead of other large city Catholic school systems that have restructured to stem the loss of students.
"We don't have to sit by and let this happen," Carlson said in an interview this week at his Central West End residence. "Let's grow this system again."
Carlson said he doesn't expect drastic change. But he isn't ruling out spreading the cost of educating more than 34,000 students among all 189 parishes, including those that don't have schools. Nor is he ruling out closing or consolidating schools.
"It's always possible that schools are going to close," Carlson said. "At least at this point it's too early to say this school or that school."
He's considering ways to change the way parochial schools are financed.
One idea being explored is a full-cost tuition model with significant financial aid, similar to colleges and universities, said Daniel Conway, consultant for missionary advancement for the archdiocese.
The parents who could afford to pay full tuition would, and those who couldn't could apply for significant financial assistance.
Another is developing a foundation in the archdiocese so parishes wouldn't have to depend on their own resources.
In the Catholic system, most parish schools must survive through tuition, Sunday collections and fundraising. In addition, the archdiocese uses interest from a $10 million endowment to help parents with tuition. The Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation is helping 1,800 low-income children who live in the city and cannot afford parochial or private education.
"We want to make sure everyone has access to our schools," Carlson said.
While many schools in the suburbs are flourishing, others in the city are struggling.
"It's really a very significant justice issue to have good schools that move people out of poverty," Carlson said.
On Dec. 17, the archdiocese began analyzing 1,693 responses to an online survey that asks respondents to select strategies that they believe are most likely to strengthen Catholic identity in schools, increase enrollment and make schools more financially sound.
The survey seeks insights on priorities such as integrating authentic Catholic teaching in the classroom, making Catholic schools more inviting to a broader range of students and developing a way for schools to share resources.
The ideas came from those who participated in eight listening sessions that have been held since February. During those two-hour meetings, Carlson gathered ideas from 144 parishes. He said the discussion has given him a better sense of what the community wants.
"You can see something building," Carlson said. "Where people begin to see Catholic schools not so much in terms of their cost, but here we can provide a pathway out of poverty, here we can share the principles of our faith clearly, and here we can help our young people come in contact with Jesus Christ."
Catholic schools around the nation are shrinking in number, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. While 24 schools opened nationwide during the 2009-10 school year, 174 closed or consolidated. Over the last decade, enrollment has decreased 20 percent.
Overall, Catholic school enrollment in the 11 counties under the Archdiocese of St. Louis has dropped by 14,000 in the last 10 years, according to the archdiocese. However, the school system continues to be the seventh-largest Catholic school system in the country.
Carlson said he doesn't plan to mimic the approach that Archbishop Timothy Dolan is taking in New York. There, Dolan is restructuring the way schools are funded so they're not reliant on a home parish to stay afloat but rather would depend on clusters of parishes, or the archdiocese at large.
"Every diocese has its own personality," Carlson said.
"While regional funding is good, if you get the school too far away from the parish, in my experience the parish community can lose interest," he said. "It's a delicate balancing act where you keep the parish involved but you have regional sharing."
In early spring, Carlson plans to announce strategies that he hopes won't become contentious.
"With any huge effort, people will like this part and that part, but they may not like everything," he said. "Hopefully we've listened well and we can craft something which can be successful here in St. Louis."