Growing up in urban Los Angeles, Michele Riolo said attending St. Malachy Catholic School from first to eighth grade in the late 1950s and early 1960s made a difference in her life.
When she later had to transfer to public school, she quickly found herself far ahead of her public-school counterparts.
“I am a product of Catholic education, and I feel blessed every day because of that,” said Riolo, who is a parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Germantown, Tenn., in the Diocese of Memphis.
As she held a sheet of paper with tips from the National Black Catholic Congress’ education commission on how to support Catholic schools — including tithing, sponsoring a student’s tuition, urging black businesses to support Catholic schools, volunteering time to a Catholic school, evangelizing to the non-Catholic community about the benefits of a Catholic education and praying for black Catholic schools — Riolo said she appreciates the concrete ways to support Catholic education. She said the suggestions have inspired her to give back.
“There are things on here I can do,” Riolo said. “I can mentor. I can tutor.”
Part of the education commission’s plan to help strengthen black Catholic schools is to call on alumni such as Riolo to support schools that serve black, urban and minority populations.
Another part of the plan is to put together a National Support Initiative fund to ensure that Catholic schools that serve black children remain financially solvent. Commission member Kathleen Merritt, director of Ethnic Ministries for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., said closing black Catholic schools can have wide-ranging consequences. In the Diocese of Charleston, for example, school closings hurt evangelization efforts and resulted in the number of black parishioners dropping from 9,000 to about 3,000, she said.
The commission hopes by 2010 to ensure schools are supported by parents, parishes and communities.
“We need to join the community,” said Dominican Sister Jamie Phelps, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies who is the Katharine Drexel Professor of Systematic Theology at Xavier University of Louisiana. “We need to put into the pot our skills, our talents and our intelligence and to be responsible to others to reverse the tide.”
The commission surveyed dioceses around the country to find examples of successful black Catholic schools that other schools could follow. The commission’s findings — including several examples of model schools — is compiled in the book Sustaining Catholic Education in and for the Black Community, which is available through the National Black Catholic Congress.
The models of successful schools include the diocesan-supported Jubilee Schools in Memphis, which are a group of 10 schools that since 1999 have been opened or reopened to serve Memphis’ poorest ZIP codes. The project was supported through a trust fund that was begun with $15 million from anonymous donors and has received other financial support.
“Ninety-eight percent of those who have donated millions and millions of dollars are not Catholic,” McDonald said. “The only thing they know is that Catholic education works.”
Money is not the only thing needed for successful Catholic schools, noted Brother Gary Sawyer, a member of the Emmaus Community of St. Augustine and a longtime teacher who works at Loyola Catholic Grade School in the Denver Archdiocese. He said schools also must partner with parents to succeed.
“Parent involvement is at the top of the list of aspects that make schools successful,” Brother Sawyer said. “We are not just working with children — educating children. We also have a population of parents that we need to educate.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on the National Support Initiative, contact the National Black Catholic Congress at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410/547-8496.