Archbishop José H. Gomez and Timothy J. Smith, president of the board of trustees of the Catholic Education Foundation, announced a new executive director Jan. 12. Kathleen M. Ash, who had been the associate dean of the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, began serving the foundation this month.
Ash has more than 20 years of experience in education and in nonprofit sectors. She’s a graduate of St. Bernard High School, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degrees from the University of Southern California and LMU.
Ash recently sat down with The Tidings to share her thoughts about her new role at the Catholic Education Foundation.
nWhy did you leave academia to take this daunting job?
While at LMU, at the school of education, I worked very closely with our center for Catholic ed. I was the interim executive director for a while and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time doing work with our LMU students who are teachers in Catholic schools. I just fell in love with our Catholic schools in Los Angeles. I also feel that having been raised Catholic in Los Angeles and having benefitted from Catholic education, I drank the Kool-Aid. I believe it changed my life. To have the opportunity to help others was really appealing to me. So coming to do this job was a chance to do something that makes a difference. My kids are gone. They’re gone, and out of the house now, and so I have the time now to really do something like this that requires me to be out and about and meeting people and going to events and really talking about how truly amazing Catholic schools are. And to give a chance to kids who can’t afford going there to go there.
nMany urban Catholic schools have been struggling for years. Families are struggling to get by. Why spend the extra money on a Catholic education?
Catholic schools are one of the best values in education. You’re getting a private school education at what is usually an incredible price. And to me, one of the most appealing things about Catholic ed is the community aspect. You’re not just going to Catholic school, you’re joining a community. And that community is what helps make a difference in kids’ lives. It’s a family, a larger family and a foundation.
I understand there are people who can’t afford it, so the goal for CEF is to be more robust and to have more funds to have even more kids be able to attend.
In the last five years, we’ve seen Catholic schools in major urban areas close — Philadelphia, New York. I think it’s because we haven’t been able to fill the seats. That is what was so appealing about the Catholic Education Foundation. We’re not just about helping kids go to school, but to help keep those schools open.
If we have kids who are supported, then we will have more children in the seats and we’ll be able to keep more schools open. That means we’ll have jobs for teachers and we’ll have that community aspect that I think is so important. The more kids, the better their budgets, and the better their budgets, the more they can offer their students.
nIs there a problem with too few families wanting a Catholic education? Say an immigrant family that sees Catholic schools as only serving the elite?
No. There have been cultural differences in other countries and some immigrants come from countries where there’s a perception that Catholic education is only for the wealthy. But I think that Catholic schools in this country are very different. When you look at the history in the United States, the boom of Catholic schools were the immigrants that came in during the World War II era. Schools were opened to serve that population. So it’s about families knowing what’s available and helping people find a way to afford it. If we do, they can give their children a gift that really lasts a lifetime. That’s the work of our entire organization. We’re all together and we can work together to find a way.
nSo it isn’t so much that we have to create the desire. The desire is already there, we just need to find a way to pay for it.
Absolutely. There’s a kid for every school. Not every kid wants to be in Catholic school, and we get that. But I think there are a lot more families, families who came from other countries who want their kids in Catholic school but feel they can’t afford it among them. So that’s part of helping families know they can find help if that’s really what they want. There are a ton of people who want their kids in Catholic school.
nWhat do you point to in your career that has prepared you for your role now?
I always think that careers are a journey and my career has certainly been one. I have been in education, predominantly higher education, for most of my career. But I have a degree in Special Ed, so I have been in the classroom. I’ve been in education at the university level and the high school level and I substitute taught in Catholic schools. Seeing so many different aspects of the world of education certainly prepared me for this job.
I also have a financial background. I’ve done business and administration in my roles in education. I know the challenge of the funding issue and I understand that at the end of the day, like it or not, finances drive whether or not we can keep schools open. So I feel like I get it from both sides.
I also worked in nonprofits, for the Braille Institute, so I had the opportunity to be involved in work that really changes peoples lives. At Braille, we help people adapt to life without sight or with diminishing sight. When someone’s life is changed, you see how grateful they are. I saw so many people who were so generous at Braille because their families were so grateful. It’s a similar situation with Catholic education — the donors are so grateful for the changes it’s made in their lives or in the lives of their families.
nDo you see any big changes coming up?
I dream about big changes, where we could fund everyone who wants to be funded. The way CEF works now is we fund everyone that we can based on what we have available. But when we run out of dollars, there are still people on the waiting list. So to me, and it really is the inspiration for coming here, if there are more people that want to go than can go now — and we need those people in our schools — the solution is to find ways to do that. My goal is to raise enough money to support all the kids who want to come and all the families that want to have access to a Catholic education.
nDo you see the work at CEF as social justice?
Absolutely. And that’s back to the LMU and Jesuit influence on me. In the School of Education, we are very much focused on the social justice aspect of access to education. I believe that education solves the world’s problems. Wherever we can educate people more, there are fewer barriers to people getting along, doing well. So I see it as an opportunity to change the world in a positive way beyond the classroom. Being more educated and thus more tolerant and being more willing to embrace the community in every sense — the local community, the global community. To me that’s the beauty of education.
nHow do you see Pope Francis’ pontificate in relation to your role here?
He embodies for me the ideal of everything we just talked about, including a willingness to embrace the world community and people where they are. So I am so excited to have him as our pope and to see what he’s going to be able to do to make the world a better place — not just the Catholic Church, but the world. I think he’s going to have that influence. To me, he’s like a rock star pope. I can’t wait to see where things are going to go.