By Tom Tracy, Catholic News Service
ORLANDO, Fla. — Sharing success stories and honoring exemplary Catholic educators nationwide is the engine that drives the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association.
“One of the things we do here is highlight best practices always with the understanding that people have to adapt and make this their own,” Christian Brother Robert Bimonte, NCEA’s president, told Catholic News Service a day before the official start of the NCEA 2015 Convention & Expo, set for April 7-9 in Orlando at the Orange County Convention Center.
An extensive awards program and a series of some 342 workshops and professional development sessions were on tap for the NCEA event, with a fair amount of the conversation dedicated to topics such as Catholic school financial support; technology use; Catholic identity in schools; social media; bullying; legal issues; and the growing importance of the Latino population in the U.S.
“What works in Philadelphia doesn’t necessarily work in Omaha and what works in Omaha doesn’t necessarily work in Orlando or Los Angeles — which is not to say anything is better or worse (than another thing), but there are 175 dioceses in the country, and, as one wise bishop I used to work for used to say, ‘If you have seen one diocese, you have seen one diocese,'” Brother Bimonte said.
“There are 175 variations on a theme and no two are exactly alike and everybody has their own history, their own culture and their own tradition.”
Brother Bimonte said the NCEA staff worked with the organization’s executive committees to identify and highlight priority areas of concern for guest speakers to address as part of the convention’s religious and professional development objectives.
Some 6,000 attendees were expected, exceeding earlier expectations by 1,000 attendees.
Brother Bimonte said that concerns over how best to continue funding Catholic schools is an ongoing challenge nationwide and is perhaps the single biggest concern facing Catholic educators: He estimated that at Catholic schools, students’ tuition only covers half of real per-pupil costs. So there is increasing pressure to find new ways to make up the shortfall.
Traditionally, tuition, parish/diocesan subsidies and fundraising efforts have been the “three pillars of Catholic school funding,” he added.
“Compounding that is the increasing need for financial aid so that you have (students) who cannot afford tuition,” sad Brother Bimonte.
“You have parishes and dioceses stretched and the pastor today is faced with many needs other than the cost of the Catholic school,” he told CNS. “Bills need to be paid and teachers need to receive a decent salary so we are trying to help look outside the traditional sources of funding, so that leads to development and institutional development.”
One trend that did not go unnoticed in the NCEA workshop lineup was recognition of the growing U.S. Hispanic Catholic population and the implications that population is having and will continue to have on Catholic school enrollment potential
Brother Bimonte said that while those of Mexican heritage probably account for the most significant portion of the Hispanic population, the conversation nationally must always recognize that Latinos are not a monolithic group and must allow for local adaptations and understanding.
“More children are being born to Latino and Hispanic parents than to Caucasian parents, so just looking at simple demographics, where are our future students?” he asked.
“Hispanics are also a very Catholic population, and Catholic schools have always existed to evangelize, to proclaim the faith and help people grow in the faith,” Brother Bimonte said, adding that it is history repeating itself and recalling a time when Irish, Italian and other ethnic parishes and schools welcomed newly arrived immigrant populations.
“It is history repeating itself over and over again going back to the Third (Plenary) Council of Baltimore where it was decreed that every Catholic parish should have a Catholic school,” he said.
According to its website, NCEA was founded in 1904 as a professional education organization providing leadership, direction, and service to fulfill the evangelizing, catechizing and teaching mission of the church. Keynote speakers at this year’s convention included Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services; and Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph and the author of “Dead Man Walking,” who was to lead a Priest Day reflection following the convention.
There is always a strong turnout of clergy and religious and bishops at the event as well, organizers said.
With the Diocese of Orlando as this year’s local host, the annual NCEA convention was being held in conjunction with the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors and the Catholic Library Association and featured an extensive expo of Catholic education book publishers and other vendors.
Orlando Bishop John G. Noonan celebrated a morning Mass April 7 to officially open the NCEA gathering.
Brother Bimonte said he hopes the convention, which is designed to be a celebration of Catholic education and the dedicated people who make it happen, will generate ideas for what he calls “wise practices” adapted to the history, culture and tradition of the local community.
“There is no magic bullet,” he said. “If there was, we would have shared it long ago. We are highlighting the good work people have done, whether it is good work in the classroom, good work as an administrator or in the seminary.”