Catholic schools have an ardent defender in Gerald M. Cattaro, Ed.D.
As a professor of education, chair of the Division of Educational Leadership, Administration and Policy at Fordham, and executive director of the Center for Catholic School Leadership in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), Cattaro plays a critical role in the ongoing effort to revitalize Catholic schools.
It is a subject he knows well, and about which he is extremely passionate, having worked for 18 years as a principal at a Catholic school in Brooklyn.
“When I was in Brooklyn, we had over 250 Catholic schools. We’re down to about 130 schools now,” he said. “When I was there, I was one of four laypeople who were principals. Today, there may be 10 religious left.”
One of the ways Cattaro helped bolster Catholic education, which has been battered by closing schools and rising tuition, was to organize “Paul: Prophetic Missionary and Transforming Leader,” a weeklong conference that took place from June 25 to July 1 in Vatican City, Rome.
The conference, which linked leaders of Catholic education from states as disparate as Florida, Indiana, New Orleans and New York with counterparts in the Vatican, was inspired by conversations Cattaro had with His Eminence Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect for the Congregation for Catholic Education.
Catholic school superintendents and vicars of education from the United States had the opportunity to discuss three core issues with their counterparts at the Vatican: identity, quality and affordability.
“This conference was about finally discussing how the United States is only one piece of what we’re talking about around the whole globe,” Cattaro said.
The conference, which is the first of its kind, drew its name from its timing at the end of the Jubilee year dedicated to Saint Paul. To mark the occasion, attendees were invited to Vespers celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI.
Cattaro said one of the important dialogues to occur at the gathering was to better define the role of the superintendent and the charism of the Catholic school community.
“Because so many religious orders are dwindling, what is the presence of the religious community in Catholic schools?” he asked.
When it comes to identity, Cattaro said that a large concern for parishes in the New York area is not just the cost of tuition—which is $3,000 to $4,000 annually, compared to the free Catholic education he received while growing up in Brooklyn—but the rising percentage of non-Catholic students. With the many concerns that a parish must address, many question the wisdom of maintaining a school.
Cattaro noted, however, that in some schools in Asia, Catholics make up only 1 to 2 percent of the student population.
“We have a spiritual work of mercy,” he said. “If you look at the mission countries, and you look at the Jesuits, they have schools not because the people are Catholic, but because we’re Catholic. It’s something we have to do.”
Cattaro still makes time for his work as a scholar, mentoring five doctoral dissertations this past semester and penning a paper on the perceptions of diocesan leaders on their role within education. He also has written a paper on why charter schools should not have a religious affiliation and co-authored a book on special education and public schools.
He is also quick to point out that the Graduate School of Education leads by example when it comes to making education affordable.
“More than 30 years ago, the GSE made a commitment to maintain affordable professional development for educators. So we offer a scholarship for anyone who is teaching in faith-based schools,” he said.
When it comes to the future of Catholic education, especially in primary schools, Cattaro said he remains hopeful because an educational curriculum based on the Gospel message has been drawing people for centuries.
“There will be new ways to govern these schools. No one is saying we’re finished with them. We’re just re-founding them. Re-founding is a theoretical concept by Gerald Arbuckle. What Arbuckle says is, when you are confronted by chaos, you can go one of two ways. You can try to put the toothpaste back in the tube, which some educators attempt, or you can be creative,” he said.
“If you look at our own three regional dioceses, they have all been very creative in terms of the schools. In Long Island, they’ve gone to regional schools. In Brooklyn, the boards are taking over the schools from the parishes, and the archdiocese is currently conducting a new strategic plan,” he said. “Because of what the schools offer, it gives me great hope, because people have not abandoned them. I believe there will always be a need for alternative faith-based education.”