Los Angeles Archdiocese officials appear to have backed off of a controversial plan to extend the school year at all of its elementary schools by 20 days, saying that decision is being left up to individual campuses.
At an event Tuesday to launch a campaign to boost enrollment at schools run by the archdiocese, Chancellor Mary Elizabeth Galt said the additional days of instruction were “a recommendation.”
“Our schools are independent and locally governed,” she said at Immaculate Conception School downtown. “Many principals wanted the support of the archdiocese. But schools will work with parent boards....The needs are different all over the city.”
Cardinal Roger Mahony and other officials announced last week that the extension of the school calendar would be adopted by most of the archdiocese’s 210 elementary schools. That plan drew swift opposition from some parents who complained that the extension would interfere with family schedules and summer activities.
Officials had said the move would help boost student performance and attract new families at a time when public schools are being forced to reduce the school year because of budget cuts. Fifteen schools are already operating on an extended calendar and 70% of schools have said they would adopt the longer year.
At Tuesday’s event, officials said the archdiocese schools have 30,000 open seats and that nine schools are in jeopardy of closing. Their marketing campaign is aimed at adding 1,000 students in the fall and increasing donations and other outside financial support for the endangered campuses.
The enrollment drive includes Spanish- and English-language radio ads, billboards, television and print promotions and neighborhood events.
Officials said the effort is imperative because Catholic schools here and nationally are being beset by declining resources and demographic shifts.
“Traditionally, Catholic schools were served by their individual parish and had no need to market themselves,” said Steve Bumbaugh, executive director of the nonprofit Specialty Family Foundation, one of the partners in the campaign. “That whole model has changed with the diminution of priests and nuns running schools and the migration of middle-class Catholic families to the suburbs. The Catholic school system is trying to catch up with reality.”
The group created the Catholic Schools Consortium two years ago and hired marketing and development directors to help turn around nine struggling elementary schools. One of the schools started renting out its playground for events and film shoots; others, like Immaculate Conception, opened preschools that have attracted new students.
At Immaculate Conception, where Pope John Paul II visited in 1987, enrollment is up by 45 students over last year to 265.
One of the challenges, said Principal Mary Ann Murphy, is to attract immigrant families who, in their home country, viewed a Catholic education as a luxury of the elite.
Catholic educators believe their success with low-income, minority students has received too little recognition as public and charter schools have seized attention. And although they say they aren’t in competition with independently run, publicly funded charters, Catholic educators say that their campuses share many of the same characteristics — smaller schools and local decision-making.