Guest Blog: Dr. Joseph Hollowell

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Guest Blog: Dr. Joseph Hollowell

Dr. Joseph Hollowell, the president of Roncalli Catholic High School in Indianapolis, researched the impact of Catholic schools converted to charter schools as part of his doctoral dissertation at Creighton.  He wrote this blog as a reaction to the news that the Jubilee Schools in Memphis were going to close and converted to charters.

What Have Researchers Learned That Might Still Help Memphis

Reading the postmortem comments regarding the closure of the Jubilee Schools followed by the reopening of those campuses by a charter school operator aroused within me both a deep sense of concern and remorse. Like the diocesan leaders before them in Washington D.C., Miami, and Indianapolis where similar Catholic-to-charter “conversions” had occurred, leaders in Memphis offered expressions such as, “Our hope is that students will continue to receive an excellent education that prepares them to be giving members of their communities” and “We’re hopeful the charter organization is keen on keeping the local aspect – keeping teachers and principals where they are and make it a seamless transition for all.” Research by Brinson (2010), Smarick (2010), and Carr (2014) concludes that similar hopes in the aforementioned locales sadly went unfulfilled. My concern is that the leaders in Memphis will find themselves in similar positions of disappointment within a few years.

These three researchers all found increased enrollments and increased diversity in the newly formed charter schools. However, while new revenues from facility rental by the charter schools were generated for center-city parishes that were in desperate need of capital infusion, the unfulfilled hopes of the Catholic leaders who had facilitated these conversions provide a cautionary tale. The lessons learned from these “conversion” projects should inform the thinking of all Catholic school leaders. Smarick, Brinson, and Carr each concluded that Catholic-to-charter conversions they studied led to:

  • unsatisfactory results in maintaining the Catholic character that had been the original hope of Catholic leaders
  • an overwhelming regulatory burden of the governing public-school agency that crushed the enthusiasm of the teachers
  • a general lack of effectiveness and accountability in the optional “wraparound” religious education programs.

The good news is that there is a new model for these partnerships with public school chartering authorities that has been piloted by the Chicago Public Schools and the Midwest Province of the Lasallian Christian Brothers. The schools that resulted from this partnership – the Catalyst Schools – were first studied and reported in the research literature by Proehl, Starnes and Everett (2015). These researchers found indications of a high degree of satisfaction of all stakeholders which was clearly not found in the three previously mentioned locales. This discovery led to my own research (Hollowell, 2016) which uncovered some important differences between the Catalyst Schools and previous partnerships with public school chartering agencies in Washington D.C., Miami, and Indianapolis. Among the new directions charted by the Catalyst Schools leadership, two stood out that seemed to make the critical difference in stakeholder satisfaction:

  • hiring faculty and administrators who were aligned to the Christian Brother charism of educating the poor
  • allowing and encouraging those teachers to participate in traditional professional development opportunities provided by the Lasallian Christian Brothers.

The Lasallian Christian Brothers have been running schools and writing about teaching and learning for over 300 years. Catalyst Schools teachers study side-by-side with teachers at Christian Brother schools as they reflect upon the methods first pioneered by St. John Baptiste de la Salle – the patron St. of Catholic school teachers! This approach to professional development is worth thoroughly understanding by those who will be collaborating with the Diocese of Memphis. It may or may not be able to be replicated in other venues but it is absolutely thriving in Chicago.

The Catalyst model deserves close scrutiny by all leaders around the country who are forced to consider these types of Catholic-to-charter conversions.

References

Brinson, D. (2010). Turning loss into renewal: Catholic schools, charter schools, and the Miami experience (pp. 1-22, Rep.). New York: Seton Education Partners.

Carr, K. A. (2014). When Catholic schools close and become charter schools: A case study of organizational narratives and legitimacy (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Indiana University.

Hollowell, J. D. (2016). Collaboration of a religious order and a public school chartering authority (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 10120501)

Proehl, R., Starnes, H., & Everett, S. (2015). Catalyst Schools: The Catholic Ethos and Public Charter Schools. Journal of Catholic Education, 18(2), 125-158.   doi:10.15365/joce.1802072015

Smarick, A. (2010). Catholic schools become charter schools: Lessons from the Washington experience (pp. 1-26, Rep.). New York: Seton Education Partners.