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New Superintendent of Catholic Education Talks Enrollment, Diversity, Student Vouchers

Maureen McCollum
Wisconsin Public Radio

Catholic education has deep roots in St. Louis, but some schools have struggled amid shrinking enrollment. 

The Archdiocese of St. Louis announced last month that it had selected Kurt Nelson as the new Superintendent of Catholic Education.  Since 2006, Nelson has served the president of Aquinas Catholic Schools in La Crosse, Wis.  He will take over as the head of Catholic schools in St. Louis on July, 1. He replaces George Henry, who held the job since 1995.

Nelson earned his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America in Catholic Educational Leadership and Policy.  Previously, Nelson was a teacher and principal in the Diocese of Tulsa, Okla., and Director of Education Programming and Instruction at Wildwood Outdoor Education Center in LaCygne, Kan.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Nelson said he hopes to better communicate the story of Catholic education and explore ways to make it more affordable for low income residents, while reversing declining enrollment at some schools.

“There’s a lot of variety and diversity in the Catholic schools,” Nelson said. “I plan to be out at as many of the schools as I can, being able to not just get to know those schools on paper, but I want to meet staff and meet parents and talk with them about challenges and opportunities we have at each of our schools.”  

Below is audio from the complete interview with Nelson as well as some of the highlights.

Enrollment has been down at some Catholic Schools in St. Louis, some have had to close their doors and others considering becoming charter schools, how would you go about reversing that trend?

“Well, I think it’s partly getting in touch with our mission, conveying our mission, communicating our mission and what makes our schools unique.  That’s going to be different from school to school.  Certainly the Archdiocese has some incredible variety and diversity among the schools and programs it offers.  I think it’s making sure we communicate those very well to families.  It’s also making sure we have resources available to help families financially afford Catholic education.  So, scholarships and those types of programs I think are tremendously important.  I’ll be looking together with the other administrators and pastors in the Archdiocese to make sure we can do those things most effectively.”   

As Catholic schools seek to recruit students in the city, to keep enrollment up, if many of those students are not Catholic, how can the schools keep their Catholic identity while also providing a good alternative to students who don't want to enroll in public schools?

“We never apologize for our Catholic identity, that is the core mission of why we exist. But part of Catholic identity is being welcoming to others and sharing the love of Christ with others who many not be of the Catholic faith.  That really continues to be a core mission. We look at the programs we have in place, the way we’re able to teach and pass along Christ’s love, even to people of other faiths. That is a key part of our evangelization mission in sharing that love and helping students of all different denominations we hope stronger and more faithful Christians no matter what every denomination that happen to be part of.” 

I don’t know how much time you’ve spent looking at the individual Catholic schools in St. Louis, but there’s one school, from St. Margaret of Scotland that is expanding right now.  I’m wondering if you’ve looked at that as an example of what can be done at other parish schools.

“That is tremendously exciting and we’ll be using the example of some of the things St. Margaret of Scotland is doing very successfully.  There are also some other Archdiocese in the country that have been doing some things that have really turned enrollment trends around.  So, I’ll be using the experiences that I’ve had with those Archdiocese and learning what they’re doing.  In particular the Archdiocese of Chicago has really turned their enrollment trends around, so we’ll be looking to see some of the things they’ve done that have really worked well and looking to implement those in addition to the local lessons.”  

Missouri is one of 44 states and the District of Columbia that are implementing Common Core State Standards next school year.  How does this relate to what will happen in classrooms at Catholic Schools in St. Louis?

“The Common Core has certainly been a topic of a lot of discussion and even controversy over the last several years.  In reality, the Common Core is really the next set of standards, in this case Missouri has adopted those standards.  Looking at state standards in Catholic schools is nothing new, that’s something we’ve been doing for decades.  Looking at standards states adopt and then evaluating for ourselves to decide does this meet our needs? Do we have stronger standards? Are there some areas where, yes, some of these standards do make sense for us?  We don’t look as Catholic schools at adopting or rejecting sets of standards.  We really do look at them one by one and really evaluate which ones best meet our mission.”     

Wisconsin recently put a voucher system in place, what is your stance on school vouchers and would you advocate for a voucher system in Missouri?

“The program here, Aquinas Catholic Schools, has been participating in the first year of the Wisconsin Parental Choice program, and it’s been a very positive one.  Here in Wisconsin, there are a number of guidelines for that.   There are certain accountability provisions that schools have to meet.  Most importantly, it helps families who have the greatest need.  The particular program here in Wisconsin, families have to be qualified for the federal lunch program, so it really does help the families who have the most limited means to be able to provide some educational options for their children.  It’s been a very effective program here.  There are a number of ways to provide that type of support and educational choice for families who struggle, whether that’s choice vouchers or tax credit or a number of other things.  That’s certainly something I’ll be trying to communicate to our legislators to know how effective it’s been here and how it helps individual families.”

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.