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Despite Acclaim for Results, Catholic Schools Are Short of Money and Students


*TC A 15th Century galleon knifes through the high seas, a huge cross emblazoned on its mainsail. "Discover Catholic School 1992," reads the tag line. This spring, the ship and its accompanying logo turned up nationwide on billboards, buttons, banners, bumper stickers, posters, pins, press releases, T-shirts and TV ads. The nation's once-demure Catholic schools are going Madison Avenue.

But not on a whim; the Roman Catholic education system, established in the 19th Century to educate the children of Catholic immigrants and an alternative to public schools for generations of blue-collar families, is, in many parts of the country, at the point of financial collapse. Ironically, the crisis in Catholic education comes at a time when parochial schools are winning praise for their educational achievements, especially in the nation's troubled inner cities.

Above all, the nation's 8,600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools have been devastated by shifting demographics and the decline of Catholicism in America. The flight of middle-class Catholics to the suburbs has left empty classrooms and a sea of red ink in the dioceses of the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where the largest numbers of parochial schools are located.

"Now we have students where there are no buildings and buildings where there are no students," says Sister Lourdes Sheehan of the U.S. Catholic Conference. In one measure of the problem, the Archdiocese of New York this year cut its subsidy to its 214 schools by 42 percent.

With the decline of Catholic religious orders, the percentage of -- teachers in Catholic schools who are sisters, brothers or priests has dropped from 90 percent in 1950 to about 10 percent today. This, too, has hit Catholic schools' coffers hard, since lay teachers demand higher salaries than their "religious" counterparts, many of whom have take vows of poverty and who receive only small stipends.

As a result, many Catholic schools have had to hike their tuitions. Schools frequently charged no tuition two decades ago; today, high school tuitions of $3,000 are common. But the higher tuitions are putting Catholic schools out of reach of the very working-poor families that parochial schools were designed to serve.

The result has been a wave of cutbacks, mergers and closings.

St. John Newman High School in an Italian neighborhood of South Philadelphia is typical of the survivors. Enrolling 2,700 students in the early 1970s, it's down to a third of that number today and is struggling to keep its doors open.

Nationally, Catholic enrollment has plunged from 5.7 million in 1964 to 2.5 million today. And the students they educate are increasingly different from those of a generation ago. Like parochial schools sponsored by the Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist churches, Catholic schools now educate large numbers of inner city minority students. Nationally, minority enrollment has risen from 11 percent to 23 percent of the Catholic school population since 1970.

Also, fewer and fewer Catholics are attending parochial schools, especially in center cities. Hales Franciscan High School is an all-male, all-black school on the South Side of Chicago. Only 10 percent of its students are Catholics.

Yet, in spite of their on-the-brink finances, many inner city parochial schools are producing impressive results. Hales, for example, requires only a C average and average scores on basic skills tests for admission. But 90 percent of the school's 300 students graduate and 90 percent of its graduates go to college.

Nationally, Catholic schools have a 95 percent graduation rate -- (vs. 85 percent in public education) and 83 percent college attendance among graduates (compared to 52 percent in public education). In 1990, Catholic school 8th-graders passed federally funded math tests at nearly twice the rate of public school students (though the failure rate among parochial students was itself high).

"On paper, parochial students often aren't any better than public school kids," says J.W. Carmichael, a chemistry professor who heads a highly regarded premed program at Xavier University in New Orleans, a school that draws heavily on the city's large parochial school system, "but they are a lot more disciplined, a lot less likely to drop out."

The achievement advantages that Catholic schools enjoy are partly explained by the fact that they attract education-minded families. Virtually no elementary schools and only about a third of Catholic secondary schools have academic admission requirements. But many more Catholic school students (and private-school students generally) have college-educated parents, and they are less likely to live in abject poverty than public school students.

Yet there are other, perhaps more important, keys to Catholic schools' success. First, they stick to the basics rather than put a lot of money they don't have into fancy equipment, elective courses and extracurricular activities. Their curriculum is filled with entrees rather than appetizers and desserts: Their students take more courses like algebra and advanced English than do kids of similar backgrounds in public schools. Catholic schools place a lot of emphasis on foreign languages, little on vocational education.

Teaching in Catholic school classrooms is typically by the book. But teachers have high expectations, and they push students hard. The staff at Hales Fransciscan like to tell the story of a student with a penchant for skipping school who was "coaxed" into returning by a priest, who would drive out to the student's home and simply lean on the car's horn until the student got in. The personal touch at Catholic schools is enhanced by the fact that they are typically smaller than public schools.

And while the days of knuckle-rapping nuns are largely over in Catholic schools, dress codes and an emphasis on religion are still strong. Such qualities make a difference, experts say. "If a school says, 'Here's what we are, what we stand for,' kids almost always respond to it by working hard," says Paul Hill, a Rand Corp. researcher who has studied both public and private schools. "The problem is that public schools don't stand for anything." Nor do the majority of public school students have an opportunity to choose to attend a school with a distinctive identity.

Parochial school systems have also been successful in paring down bureaucracy and handing over staffing and other matters to principals and teachers. The Archdiocese of Washington, for lTC instance, runs its 50,000 student school system with a central administration of 17 people; the District of Columbia public schools, which enroll 81,000 students, have a "downtown" bureaucracy of 1,500.

It's true that Catholic schools are spared the heavy expense of educating large numbers of students with special needs. But they nonetheless educate their students at about half the cost of their public school counterparts.

Catholics schools are fighting to regain their fiscal balance. In addition to this year's public relations campaign launched by the NCEA and the U.S. Catholic Conference, 85 percent of the nation's 2,000 Catholic secondary schools have established development offices in recent years.

Catholic educators have also taken to bashing public education regularly. Says Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the National Catholic Education Association: "Instead of people throwing all this money at the public schools, they should throw a little money at the public schools, they should throw a little money at private schools that work."

Many Catholic elementary schools are adding after-school programs to make themselves more attractive to working parents.

The Catholic education community has also begun lobbying aggressively for vouchers, tuition tax credits and other policies that include public funding of both religious and non-religious private schools. In 1990 the Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly to earmark $2 million to establish a national office to help parent groups push state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to support private schooling. If the initiatives are successful in winning vouchers of the size of Milwaukee's first-in-the-nation awards, $2,500, it would open up parochial schools to the vast majority of public school students, since tuition at a majority of Catholic schools is below that figure.

The survival of many urban Catholic schools appears to hang in the balance. And based on the schools' classroom record, giving disadvantaged students the resources to attend parochial schools may not be a bad idea.

L Thomas Toch covers education for U.S. News and World Report.

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