Catholic schools struggling to recruit, retain teachers

Monday, September 24, 2001
Page 17A

Catholic schools struggling to recruit, retain teachers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Geri Graniero should be exactly what Catholic schools are looking for in a teacher.

She went to Catholic schools for eight years as a child before attending the Catholic College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. She talks happily of the benefits of a Catholic education.

So why is she teaching at public Hebron Valley Middle School in Carrollton?

“When I found out what the pay was in Catholic schools, I knew there was no way I’d ever work there,” she said. “It’s poverty level.”

Ms. Graniero and others like her are an increasing problem for Catholic schools, locally and nationally. Their salaries have long been well below what public schools can pay, and it is getting harder to persuade teachers to work for less.

Decades ago, when Catholic education was primarily the work of religious orders, schools didn’t have to worry about recruitment and stability. There was little risk that a top teacher was going to be hired away by a rival nunnery.

But today, more than 90 percent of Catholic school teachers are lay people. And they have bills to pay.

Public schools – themselves worried about an impending teacher shortage – have been raising salaries steadily. Catholic schools haven’t been able to keep up.

“Ten years ago, I had so many applications coming in that I’d be near tears because I couldn’t get them into the database fast enough,” said Alice Terrill, who recruits teachers for the Catholic Diocese of Dallas. “We had many, many more applications than we had jobs.”

Now, she struggles to replace the nearly 200 teachers the diocese loses each year, most to better-paying jobs elsewhere.

Local Catholic schools determine their own salaries, but the Dallas Diocese sets a minimum starting salary of $24,500 annually. In the Diocese of Fort Worth, the annual minimum is $20,000. Most area schools offer the minimum or a few thousand dollars more.

Compare that with area public schools, which offer some of the highest teacher salaries in the state. Dallas schools, for instance, start at $33,000 a year. In Irving, it’s $35,075. With bonuses available for bilingual teachers or those working in hard-to-fill subject areas, starting salaries can reach $40,000 annually in some districts.

“We’ve been raising salaries 5 percent a year,” said Charles LeBlanc, director of Catholic schools for the Dallas Diocese. “But if public schools go up 7 percent a year, we just fall farther behind.”

Sally Tamulewicz, who taught in Dallas-area Catholic schools for 17 years, is starting her fifth year at Stewart’s Creek Elementary School in The Colony. “I’d absolutely be in a Catholic school now if it wasn’t for the money,” she said. “I liked just about everything else about the job.”

Efforts to improve the lot of public school teachers make Catholic schools’ job that much harder. For instance, when the Legislature recently voted to help public school teachers pay for health insurance, Ms. Terrill was less than overjoyed. The fact that her diocese paid the full cost of health and dental insurance was one of the few financial selling points it could offer.

Although no school in the Dallas Diocese started the year with an empty classroom, diocesan officials acknowledged the job of recruitment is getting tougher each year. The diocese is already planning to have a job fair of its own – its first ever – in the spring.

The Fort Worth Diocese had its first earlier this year.

Unlike many private schools, Catholic schools in America have long been designed to parallel the public system. They’re organized similarly, with superintendents and boundary lines, and their student populations are generally more economically diverse than other private schools.

Other private schools are often in a better position to keep up with public school salary increases. Because they serve a generally wealthier student population, they can raise tuition more readily than the Catholic system.

“We would love to be competitive with public education,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “But knowing where the bulk of our dollars come from, we can’t price ourselves out of the market.”

For some teachers, salary doesn’t matter. It’s as much a calling as a career.

“I was willing to sacrifice the pay to be in the kind of environment I’m in,” said Jennifer Kramer, who teaches fifth grade at Holy Family Catholic School in Fort Worth.

But the number of teachers with an unwavering commitment to Catholic education is not what it used to be. Once, a steady supply of nuns, Jesuits and others filled Catholic classrooms.

But their numbers have been declining steadily since the 1960s. Now, 91 percent of Catholic-school teachers are lay teachers, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Only five of the 40 schools in the Dallas Diocese are headed by a priest or nun.

The cost of employing a lay Catholic teaching corps isn’t much higher than the cost of a previous generation’s nuns. While lay teachers require much higher salaries than nuns, nuns had their rooms, board and other costs paid for by local churches.

But what lay teachers have done to Catholic education is force diocesan officials to compete for their services. One way schools have adjusted: They rely heavily on non-Catholic teachers. Ms. Terrill estimates that more than a quarter of the Dallas Diocese’s teachers are not Catholic.

“We’ve got Jewish teachers, Buddhist teachers – as long as they agree that if a child asks a question, they’ll answer it in accordance with Catholic doctrine,” she said.

Britney Whitehead, who teaches first grade at St. Rita Catholic School in Dallas, is Christian, but not Catholic.

“Everybody’s been so welcoming that it’s not a big issue,” she said. When it comes time to teach religion, she swaps classrooms with another teacher who is Catholic.

“Most of us are products of the Catholic system, and we want to teach there,” said Rita Schwartz, president of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, a Philadelphia-based teachers union that has found some success organizing Catholic school teachers.

“But you can only take so much on faith. My fear is that Catholic teachers teach for a few years, work the kinks out of their teaching, then they go off to public schools for real money. We’re the training ground.”

Catholic schools are trying to determine how best to navigate the problems. Several national groups have started programs offering college graduates a tuition-free master’s degree in exchange for a commitment to teach for two years in a Catholic school. Seven such teachers currently work in the Dallas Diocese.

Officials in the Diocese of Cleveland are promoting Future Catholic Teacher Clubs to promote interest in the profession.

“We were really asking ourselves, ‘Who will succeed us?'” said Catherine Collins, who is leading the diocese’s effort.

And Catholic schools are hoping their lower certification requirements will make them more appealing to midcareer professionals looking for a new line of work. “We’re getting a lot of people – men as much as women – who say, ‘I’ve always wanted to teach. Life is short. Money isn’t everything,'” Ms. Terrill said.