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Catholic Superintendent Reflects On His First Semester

As local schools celebrate Catholic Schools Week, the new superintendent of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis said the schools are successful because everyone works together.

“I think one of the keys is the sense of it really is a community effort,” superintendent Kurt Nelson told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday. “Our schools are a partnership between parents and the educators, but it’s also a partnership with the larger faith community around the parishes and the archdiocese, who are all working together to help kids realize their full potential.”

Nelson started in July. Over the last few years, Catholic Education’s enrollment has declined. Nelson said that decline is slowing, but that the Great Recession definitely affected the district’s enrollment. Some scholarships are available, but Catholic Education students must pay tuition, which varies from $3,200 to $20,000, depending on the school.

“Our tuition really doesn’t cover the full cost that it takes to educate a student,” Nelson said. “We’re doing a lot of fundraising.”

Looking ahead, Nelson said some changes in the church’s leadership may help boost enrollment.

“Pope Francis certainly has created, if you will, a new springtime in the church,” Nelson said. “A big piece of that is Pope Francis talks like one of us. He’s able to cut through a lot of theological confusion and really simplify things, and people really respond to that — to simple truths.

While religion plays a big part in Catholic Education’s classrooms, about 12 percent of the 40,000-student population is not Catholic.

“It really is about families who want that strong moral and ethical upbringing,” Nelson said. “Many of our families really want their children to be in a faith environment, even if they’re not Catholic. They’re Christian and they want their students to be in a faith environment where they’re free to talk about Jesus and they’re free to talk about God.”

Faith-based schools also are exempt from state and federal education laws, like No Child Left Behind or Common Core State Standards. “We certainly evaluate them and decide what makes sense,” Nelson said.

St. Louis’ Catholic school system is the eighth largest in the nation, Nelson said, boasting of its diversity.  

“We have some schools that are very mixed, have a pretty even proportion,” he said. “We have some schools that have a much higher minority population. But we have blacks; we have whites; we have Hispanics and Latinos; we have Asian students. (It’s) pretty diverse, not only racially but also economically.”

About 11 percent of the students have special learning needs, Nelson said.

“Many of them are educated in their local school with learning consults and some special accommodations that we’ve built in,” Nelson said. “But we also have recognized that some students need a little bit more services, so our archdiocese actually has five special education schools where we provide a little bit more intensive services to those families.”

The archdiocese covers St. Louis and 10 counties in eastern Missouri.

“Our priority is inclusion as much as we can,” Nelson said. “It really is finding the best match for that individual student’s needs.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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