Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Catholic Schools Today:
Why They're Right for Your Child
Why do parents spend the night outside
of Catholic schools the day before school registration starts? Why
do parents register their children for Catholic schools the day
after the infants are baptized? Catholic schools are once again
filled and many schools lack the space for new students. Over 40%
of Catholic schools have waiting lists that resemble the waiting
lists of the 1950—s. The 1990—s have seen yearly increases in the
number of students in Catholic schools. All indications point to
a continuation of this trend.
This growth in student enrollment has
taken place despite the fact that many Catholic schools closed.
Unfortunately, most closings occurred in urban areas where the Catholic
population moved from the city to the suburbs leaving behind a parish
too small and poor to support a school.
Many center-city Catholic schools, however,
remain open. Most educators recognize that these schools are the
only effective schools in urban areas. Individual parishes and dioceses
have made valiant efforts to maintain urban schools even though
large numbers of their students are non-Catholics.
While many schools have closed, more
than 150 new Catholic schools opened during the past 10 years. Hardly
a diocese in the country exists that does not have plans on the
drawing boards for new schools and additions to others. Catholic
parents in suburban parishes are now the prime movers behind the
opening of new schools across the country.
A look at Catholic schools
The best way to understand what is happening
in our Catholic schools as we enter a new millennium is to take
a good look at the following four traits:
1. Catholic identity. If your image of
Catholic schools comes from the movie The Bells of St. Mary—s,
you will be very surprised at them today. Formerly, most teachers
were priests or members of religious communities of sisters and
brothers. Today, over 92% of the Catholic educators are single
or married women and men. In a Catholic elementary school the
typical teacher is a married woman over 35 years of age who has
been teaching in the school for over 10 years.
When this change from priests and religious to single
and married women and men began, people asked, "Will the schools
remain Catholic?" Today the Catholic schools continue to emphasize
their Catholic identity. The priests and religious prepared their
young teachers to take over the schools and keep them committed
to their central mission of evangelization. Catholic school teachers
know their subjects and teaching methods, have high expectations
of their students and model the Christian adult.
2. Modern classroom arrangements. A second
change you will notice as you visit today—s Catholic schools is
the instructional program. Formerly, the typical classroom had
student desks lined up in neat rows. Little else was in the classroom
except a blackboard. Today, the desks are usually grouped in clusters.
About 20 to 35 students work in different areas in the classroom.
Some students access information from the Internet. At another
technology station, students e-mail students on the other side
of the globe. Others watch a video. The teacher works with a small
group in an instructional area near her workstation. An aide tutors
one student. A few students complete assignments at their desks.
While the appearance of the schoolrooms has changed,
the curriculum remains similar to what was taught 50 years ago.
Catholic schools have always placed a high priority on the basics,
with religion being the first of the four R—s. Catholic school
educators still maintain that basic information needs to be committed
to memory. Yet, emphasis is placed on understanding concepts,
not just repeating rote formulas.
3. New administrative setup. Years ago, pastors
directed the schools and all aspects of the parish. Principals
worked under their direction. Today, pastors oversee a variety
of parish ministries. While they have ultimate responsibility,
they are not the authority in every ministry. The relationship
among pastors, principals and heads of other parish ministries
is a peer relationship. Each person has expertise in the particular
ministry but each works as part of a team.
Pastors and principals have come to rely on the talents
of competent parishioners. Education committees develop the budget,
approve policy and offer advice. In today—s complex society, no
pastor or principal is expected to know all the answers. The parishioners
support the parish by the gift of their talents, which is a form
4. Changes in funding. Forty years ago, Catholic
schools did not charge tuition or, if they did, it was very modest.
The expenses of the schools were minimal largely because the sisters
and brothers worked for a modest stipend. They received enough
to take care of their basic needs and to send funds to the motherhouse
to support the novices and the retired members of the community.
Today, tuition covers almost 60% of the Catholic elementary school
per-pupil cost. The parish Sunday collection contributes about
30%, and various fund-raising activities generate 10%.
Are they successful?
The easiest way for me to answer this
question of whether or not Catholic schools are successful is simply
to suggest that you first:
Look at your own experience— if you
graduated from a Catholic school. My mother went to a Catholic
elementary school but did not go to high school. My father went
to Catholic elementary school and Catholic high school but did not
graduate from high school. Their four sons graduated from Catholic
elementary and secondary schools, held executive positions and two
of them have earned doctorates. Catholic schools took a largely
immigrant population of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
and brought that population into the mainstream of American life
so that today it is one of the best educated and most successful
groups in the United States.
Look at today—s parents. Parents
know how successful Catholic schools are. In 1997, the parents of
over 23,000 children in the schools run by New York City signed
their children up for a lottery in which only 2,000 of these children
would be able to attend Catholic schools. Similar situations occurred
in Washington, Cleveland, Milwaukee and other cities. The non-Catholic
population in Catholic schools is over 13%. Parents most often indicate
that the primary reasons for sending their children to Catholic
schools are the schools— record of academic excellence, emphasis
on values and supportive environment.
Look at research. Research
studies demonstrate the effectiveness of Catholic schools and the
superior performance of Catholic school students over students in
state-controlled schools. The results of the 1996 National Assessment
of Educational Progress Tests (most recent available) show that
students in Catholic schools, who make up over 60% of the students
in independent schools, outperform students in government-controlled
schools in all areas. Some would claim that we cannot place too
much emphasis on these scores because not all the rigors of educational
research were followed. Yet the overwhelming higher achievement
of Catholic school students in every subject, at every grade level
and in every test-year cannot be ignored.
Why the success?
Those committed to Catholic schools are
convinced that our students succeed because of:
A rigorous curriculum. A Nation
at Risk, a national study by the U.S. government, indicated
that the country was in economic danger because of the low achievement
of students in government-controlled schools. Further study showed
that students were not taking the courses that their parents had
taken in secondary schools. Many of the courses they were now taking
had been considerably "watered down," according to this report.
This was not and is not the case in Catholic schools.
Catholic schools have a very clear goal
for their students. The vast majority of their students advance
to college (about 94%) and graduate from college. The programs in
elementary and secondary schools prepare students for this goal.
Therefore, most students take four years of mathematics, history,
English, science, foreign language, and of course religious studies.
In addition, students are held to a high standard of achievement.
Class and homework assignments challenge students.
Self-discipline with a Christian focus.
The emphasis placed on external discipline in Catholic schools attempts
to foster self-discipline. Catholic schools seek to develop the
Christlike person. Part of being Christlike requires people to accept
responsibility for their actions and to respect others. The rules
established in Catholic schools foster growth in the value of self-responsibility.
Catholic school students are taught to
recognize the presence of Christ in themselves and others. This
reverence for people permeates all aspects of school life.
To be involved in drugs, alcohol or violence
is to be anti-Christ. Catholic schools are not merely "Gun-free
Zones," "Drug-free Zones" or "Violence-free Zones." They seek to
be "Christ-centered Zones." These attitudes hopefully will carry
over into adult life so that the homes of Catholic school graduates
will be "Christ-centered Homes."
High expectations. You have heard
many times the famous line, "Sister said." Perhaps the most frequent
thing that Sister said was, "I know you can and will succeed." The
sisters expected every student to achieve. In my first year teaching,
I showed my students— grades to the principal, who examined them
and asked, "What did you do that four students failed mathematics?"
The principal helped me to see that the students did not fail. I
failed the students.
Research from many fields has shown the
importance of high expectations. Not only did the sisters have high
expectations of their students. They communicated this to their
students, who internalized this value. This, in turn, enhanced their
self-concept. Of the many gifts that religious women have given
to this country, this determination that children will learn is
one of their greatest gifts. Although few religious sisters teach
in Catholic schools today, their legacy of high expectations continues.
Commitment of parents. Parents
are the first educators of their children in time, importance, effect,
commitment and many other ways. The school serves the parents and
works with them for the good of children. Catholic schools have
capitalized on this concept and insisted that parents take an active
part in their children—s education. When parents register their
children, they are told the program and asked to commit themselves
to work with the school. When some difficulty arises, parents are
immediately contacted and asked, "What can we do together to solve
Not only are Catholic school parents
committed to their own children—s education, they are committed
to their schools. Each year the over 5,000,000 parents of Catholic
school students provide hundreds of millions of hours of volunteer
service to their schools. Parents have built schools, assisted in
the office, taught classes, taken students on trips and performed
hundreds of other services.
Challenges we face. As Catholic
education moves into the 21st century, special attention must be
focused on these challenges:
Staffing. After the students themselves,
teachers are Catholic schools— most precious assets. The Catholic
identity of the school, the academic program, the modeling for the
students depend upon the faculty. At one time, this was assured
because large numbers of religious served on the staff. Today, many
Catholic school educators graduate from state colleges and universities.
As a result they lack many years of instruction in a Catholic environment.
Diocesan and national programs are addressing
this. But more needs to be done and be done quickly.
Finances. Finances have been a
problem from the time the first Catholic school opened in the country.
Today this issue represents a two-edged sword. Catholic schools
have a much lower per-pupil cost than the state schools. One reason
for this is the salaries of their educators are only about half
those of teachers in government schools. One of the main reasons
why the salaries are so low is the desire of administrators to keep
tuition down so Catholic schools remain affordable for all children.
How do we solve this dilemma? The current movement to provide full
and fair parental choice in education seeks to give all parents
the means to send their children to the schools they know are best
for them, whether they be state-controlled or independent. Catholics
should become familiar with this justice issue and get involved.
Finances will remain a problem for Catholic schools until elected
officials respond to the call of millions of citizens to assist
all parents with the education of their children. At the same time,
Catholics must increase their giving to Catholic schools as many
Catholics did a few generations ago. Support for Catholic schools
is the responsibility of all Catholics.
Special-needs children. You cannot
read the Gospels without discovering Jesus— love for people with
special needs. The history of our Church highlights saints who reached
out to help those in need. Today, the Catholic Church is recognized
for all its efforts to assist the disabled or the ably different.
Each year, largely because of finances, Catholic schools turn away
thousands of children with various forms of disabilities. A hopeful
sign appears in the growing number of schools adapting their buildings
and programs to enable such children to enjoy the benefits of a
Catholic school. Catholic educators cannot be content until this
problem is adequately addressed.
These challenges must not distract us
from one of the biggest selling points for Catholic schools. Outside
sacramental programs, Catholic schools have done more for evangelization
than any other American Church institution. For over 200 years,
they have been the most effective means of helping youth grow in
their faith. As they face the challenges, they will continue to
have a profound impact on the Catholic Church and the American nation.