The Slatest

Catholic School Is Dying. The School the Pope Is Visiting Is Attempting to Buck That Trend. 

Pope Francis arrives at St. Patrick’s Cathedral aboard the popemobile September 24, 2015 in New York City.  

Photo by Aristide Economopoulos-Pool/Getty Images

This afternoon, Pope Francis will visit a third-grade classroom at Our Lady Queen of Angels, a Catholic school in East Harlem. Fresh off his closely watched speeches to Congress and the United Nations, the classroom visit seems like a chance for the pope to take a break from speaking out on big policy issues, like immigration and the environment, and just enjoy some cute kids. But Our Lady Queen of Angels is actually symbolic of some pretty significant issues facing the beleaguered Catholic education system.

Catholic school enrollment has declined drastically in recent years. More than 2,000 schools closed or consolidated across the United States between 2000 and 2013. In New York City, attendance plummeted from more than 130,000 in the 2002-03 school year to less than 90,000 in 2012-13. Today, fewer New York kids attend Catholic schools than Jewish schools, whose enrollment numbers are heading in the opposite direction.

As Politico reported this summer, Our Lady Queen of Angels is attempting to buck this trend by applying some unconventional tactics borrowed from charter schools. It is part of a young network of six Catholic schools in East Harlem and the South Bronx that is explicitly using the city’s top charter schools as a model. The school is using a curriculum from Amplify, a “digital education product company” that’s a subsidiary of News Corp. It employs spreadsheets tracking student progress, and an operations manager now oversees the school’s finances.

Some of these changes are cringeworthy at first glance — Politico quoted school leadership saying they want to be “intentional with branding” — but they also make a certain sense. Catholic schools, after all, were known for discipline and rigor long before charter schools came along. As a leader in the school network said, “We joke that urban Catholic schools were the first no-excuses schools.”

Meanwhile, the church next door to Our Lady Queen of Angels School has already fallen victim to trends the school is trying to buck: The Archdiocese of New York closed it down in 2007 due to low attendance.

See more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.