New Catholic schools chief unsure of additional school closings

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Like a teacher administering a test, the new schools chief for the Archdiocese of Chicago isn’t giving out any answers just yet.

Jim Rigg says he’s still assessing the state of Catholic schools in Chicago, so it’s unclear if more school closures should be expected.

Since becoming superintendent Oct. 5, Rigg has visited 35 schools.

“Expect to hear more as we enter the spring. We’re hoping to push out information about where we’re headed,” he said.

The Chicago Archdiocese runs the largest private school system in the country with more than 82,000 students spread across 240 schools.

Rigg spoke about his new job in an interview at the Archbishop Quigley Center on the Gold Coast, where he keeps an office not far from Archbishop Blase Cupich, the man who hired him.

His last job was in Ohio, where Rigg, 38, headed up Catholic schools in Cincinnati. He’s bunking in temporary housing downtown while looking for a more permanent home.

Rigg has four children — three boys and a girl — who will attend Catholic schools in Chicago when his family moves here in the coming weeks — and thus considers himself a “current investor.”

He is taking over a school system that’s seen declining enrollment for several years.

“I’ve learned that Chicago has a shifting landscape demographically, so our schools for the last few years have had to nimbly adjust to changes in demographics. And I foresee that we’ll have to continue to do that,” Rigg said.

“I don’t know if that means consolidations,” he said before emphasizing “we’re going to operate out of a mindset of growth and expansion, but we’re also going to have to adjust to demographic shifts as they occur in the city.”

Four Catholic elementary schools were consolidated on the Northwest Side to form the Pope Francis Global Academy, slated to open next year.

Rigg’s tenure will also play out amid the shifting landscape of a Chicago Public Schools system that recently closed dozens of schools, scattering students.

“I don’t rejoice when the public schools struggle,” Rigg said. “I want to do my part to be of support to them while still making sure that we have strong, vibrant Catholic school alternatives for the families who choose to send their kids to us.”

And as he charts a future, charter schools continue to blossom in Chicago and offer a free education, often with strict learning environments and mandatory uniforms — things traditionally associated with Catholic schools.

“I don’t fear a competitive marketplace because I’m proud of the strength of Catholic education,” Rigg said.

“It’s evident that there are charter schools in proximity to some of our Catholic schools, it’s hard for me to tell yet whether or not they’ve damaged the enrollment there,” Rigg said, noting he’s still learning the lay of the land.

“Public schools, charter schools, they have their own mission. I support their mission, too, but we should be able to stand up to any potential competitor,” he said.

Rigg said the archdiocese will also continue to focus on Chicago’s Latino community.

“While we’ve made great gains in enrolling Latinos in our schools, there are many out there who are not in Catholic education,” Rigg said.

“We have found that many, particularly immigrant Latino families, aren’t aware that Catholic education is available to them. In Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Catholic schools tend to serve the wealthy elite, and in the United States and the Archdiocese of Chicago we’ve made a commitment to serve all populations,” he said.

Rigg, who speaks Spanish — not fluently, but enough to hold conversations — noted that half of the Chicago archdiocese is Spanish-speaking and that nationally, the majority of Catholics under the age of 35 are Latino.

Catholic school officials are willing to work with families to cover tuition, he said. “Each one of our schools sets a unique tuition level,” he said, pointing to money provided by parishes, as well by the archdiocese, that are available for students who cannot afford tuition.

The average tuition at Chicago, suburban Cook and Lake county Catholic elem

entary schools is about $5,000. In the 2014-2015 school year, the archdiocese — through the Caritas Scholars program — gave $2.6 million to 1,600 students in 63 schools. This amount is in addition to local aid from parishes/schools, as well as the Big Shoulders Fund.

Making school even more affordable was one of first things Rigg gravitated to when talking about future plans, although he offered no specifics.

And though he serves a predominantly Catholic school population, about 15 percent of students in archdiocese-run schools are not Catholic.

“We do have a number of non-Catholics in our schools, and we’ll continue to serve them and continue to market to them as well,” said Rigg, who grew up in Denver and attended Catholic schools his entire life — except for three years in high school when his family did not live near one.

He attended the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts before entering a Catholic schools program akin to Teach for America that landed him in classrooms in two inner-city schools in Memphis.

Rigg also holds a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in educational administration from Capella University in Minneapolis.

Though his strategy going forward lacks specifics, Rigg said details are coming.

“We’re going to be putting some flesh on that plan in the next few months,” he said.

In the meantime, Rigg said he’s been enjoying taking in the city’s architecture. And its pizza.

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