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Non-Catholic parents put faith in parochial school


Kevin and Pamela Cofield are not Roman Catholics, but they " send their 9-year-old daughter to parochial school because they have lost faith in Baltimore's public school system.

Mr. Cofield is a laid-off trucker, and his wife is a postal worker. Although their budget is tight, they manage to come up with the $1,700 necessary for tuition at Father Charles A. Hall Lower School.

"We do what we have to, rather than see our kids get caught in the system that's not really teaching," says Mr. Cofield.

Scherline Sterrett lives in West Baltimore's tough Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. A non-Catholic and the widowed mother of seven, she pays more than $4,000 in Catholic and private school tuitions each year.

That buys her children physical security, strong academic programs and education in morals she believes are missing from the public schools, she says.

"At least I know when my kids leave out of the door, they won't have someone bring a gun to school or try to sell them drugs," she says.

These parents are strong supporters of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's school "choice" plan, a three- to five-year pilot program that would have given 200 Baltimore families money for private and parochial school tuition. The program was intended to give low-income families an alternative to public schools.

"It's supposed to be a free society. We're supposed to have a choice," says Mrs. Sterrett, who has five children in Catholic middle and high schools and in Gilman and Roland Park Country schools. "A lot of people in Congress, they send their kids to private school."

The governor's voucher plan is dead, killed by state lawmakers after attacks from public-school educators who portrayed it as an unconstitutional raid on the public treasury.

But as a practical matter, the city's Catholic schools already provide a relatively low-cost choice for low-income and working-class parents, who can afford at least part of the elementary and middle school tuitions of $1,400 to $2,500.

Throughout the Baltimore Archdiocese, which includes areas outside the city, total enrollment rose 3 percent to 32,082 this school year, the second increase in a row, says Rob Rehg, spokesman for the archdiocese. The figure includes high school enrollment.

The picture is less rosy in the city itself, he admits, with some Catholic schools losing enrollment and facing tough financial times.

But some Catholic schools in the city have waiting lists -- and manyfamilies on the list are not Catholics.

This school year, for example, 23.4 percent of those enrolled in the archdiocese's 100 schools are not Catholics. The percentage is even higher in the city's 28 Catholic elementary and middle schools, an average of 42 percent.

Many of those non-Catholic parents cite academics, discipline and education in morals as reasons for enrolling their children, Catholic educators say.

"They strongly feel that moral development is the key to the child's development," says the Rev. Robert Kerns, pastor of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in West Baltimore. "What we try to develop are values that help them to cope and develop inner resources."

At Father Hall Lower School in Sandtown-Winchester, about 70 percent of the 167 students are non-Catholic and all are black, drawn by the academic program and the strong moral component, says Sister Rita Michelle, the principal.

The primary school is behind St. Peter Claver, just off Pennsylvania Avenue. The floors are clean, the halls quiet, the uniformed students animated and respectful.

Portraits of civil rights leaders and symbols and illustrations of black history and culture cover the walls and shelves. At the front of a kindergarten classroom, a red, black and green flag flies next to Old Glory. The ethnic symbol is saluted each morning by the student body.

"I pledge allegiance to my black and Third World people," the children recite the opening words to the "Pledge to the Afro-American Flag," a moving avowal of racial pride and personal discipline.

The school's emphasis on racial heritage and self-esteem, coupled with lessons on morals, is attractive to many non-Catholic inner-city parents, says Sister Rita Michelle.

"These parents want something different for their children," says the principal. "Because of that, they're willing to make that extra sacrifice. Sometimes, it comes down to paying the rent or paying the tuition."

Dr. Phyllis B. Douglass is principal of the 190-student Father Charles A. Hall Middle School off Poplar Grove Avenue. "In the inner city, the children have more than their share of problems. They bring them here," she says.

For example, she notes, "about a third of our newer children have one or two parents who are dead and are living with grandparents."

Teachers and administrators work closely with the families, 70 percent of them non-Catholic, to help children overcome problems, she says. But the staff also demands a high level of commitment.

"We let them know that we have high standards that we expect them to live up to," Dr. Douglass says.

The children rise to those standards, she adds, citing test results that appear to bear her out.

According to a national standardized test given to her students at the start of the school year, fourth-graders scored below the third-grade level in math and reading. Eighth-graders, by contrast, started the year above grade level in both subjects.

"We do get children who were real problems in public school, behavior-wise and academically," says Dr. Douglass. "With the added attention they're given, they do seem to straighten out."

But some public school educators argue that the Catholic schools are playing with a stacked deck. Catholic schools can turn away the disabled, disruptive and others who may be difficult to educate, they say, while public schools have no such luxury.

"They get to choose the students; they get to send away the ones they don't want," says Jane R. Stern, president of the 39,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association and a vehement opponent of using public money for private tuition.

Ms. Stern questions the validity of claims that Catholic school students generally outperform public school students, saying such claims are not based on comparable test results.

Given the same pool of students, she says, there is "no evidence whatever" that private schools will do a better job.

"There are public schools that do much better than parochial schools," adds Ms. Stern, citing the performance of Montgomery County's public schools, among the state's best.

What do the Catholic school students think?

Some who have attended Catholic and public schools praise the parochial school environment.

Joeli Johnson, an eighth-grader at Father Hall Middle School, attended public Harlem Park Middle School last year and hated it.

"It seems like everybody has an attitude there. . . . If you look at them the wrong way, they 'bank' you after school," the 13-year-old says, using the slang term for a gang beating. "I was terrified at that school."

At Father Hall, she says, "everybody is like one big family."

Wesley Clash, a 10-year-old in the third grade at Father Hall Lower School, previously attended the city's George G. Kelson Elementary.

"At Kelson . . . there were more people fighting," he says. "Over there if I had a problem, they'd just say, 'Work it out yourself.' "

The staff at Father Hall is more responsive, he adds.

"They understand. If you have a problem they help you work it out. . . . They give me respect and I give them respect back."

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