For the first time in three decades, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore is thinking about opening a new high school, maybe even two or three.
The existing Catholic schools have a combined waiting list of at least 2,500. Most of it is in the suburbs, but a few city schools are also at capacity. Parents are pushing for new elementary and high schools in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Frederick counties.
From the cardinal to the parents, the question is not whether to build, but where and what kind of school. The most urgent push is in the Carroll-Howard suburbs on the western edge of the Baltimore area, where parents who want more elementary schools are competing with those who point out that the two counties don't have any Catholic high schools. Catholic students from Carroll and Howard counties travel up to an hour each way to attend high schools in Baltimore, Frederick and even Hanover, Pa.
The archdiocese is responding cautiously, studying demographics and surveying parents to see what the market will bear.
Church officials bluntly tell parishioners that the archdiocese cannot pay for new schools. At a meeting of 150 parents from Howard and Carroll last month, the parents who want new schools, mostly middle-class and professional, were undaunted and ready to raise money or bonds and absorb capital costs in tuition.
"I absolutely am" optimistic that parents and the church will raise the money needed, said Cardinal William H. Keeler.
The demand for new schools will be among the topics at the annual Catholic school conference tomorrow at the Convention Center in Baltimore, where church officials will proudly highlight the five-year growth.
Driving the demand for new schools is the growing number of Catholics in the suburbs. Since 1975, the number of Carroll County Catholics has more than tripled, the number in Howard and Frederick counties has more than doubled, the number in Harford County has nearly doubled and the number in Anne Arundel County has grown by nearly half.
Catholic school enrollment has followed. After a steady decline over the 1970s and 1980s, the archdiocese's Catholic school enrollment has steadily increased since 1990, to 34,605 now. The archdiocese expects growth to continue through 2015, said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.
"I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic schools. And I can't get my daughter in a Catholic school," said Kimberly Myers of Woodbine in Howard County. Ms. Myers lives within 20 minutes of four Catholic schools, none of which has space for her 7-year-old.
"A lot of the schools tell you there's no sense even getting on the waiting list because it's so large," Ms. Myers said.
Dr. Valenti also credits a marketing effort that started in 1989-1990. The archdiocese used a Knott Foundation grant in 1989 to market its schools through paid advertisements.
"It's exhilarating," Dr. Valenti said. "We're experiencing a kind of movement in the church that parents are really committed to. And although we have limitations, peo- ple understand, appreciate and affirm the job that we do."
The demand is coming from many directions:
* In Howard and Carroll counties, parents are hoping to build one high school in northern Howard or southern Carroll to serve both counties.
* Just as many parents in Howard and Carroll want an elementary school. Some parents have suggested a combination middle and high school, which could free up space in the elementaries, although Catholic schools are traditionally kindergarten through eighth grade, and ninth through 12th grade. The archdiocese is conducting a study to determine where the long-term need will be.
* In Anne Arundel County, a similar study is beginning. St. Mary and Archbishop Spalding high schools are at capacity.
* In Frederick County, a coalition of businesses, parents and churches has paid a consultant to determine whether to open a new elementary school or high school, and where to put it.
At the heart of it all will be the issue of money. The archdiocese may need new churches, too, Cardinal Keeler said, and is looking at those two issues together. But education is clearly a priority. Since 1990, Cardinal Keeler has made schools a major thrust of his Lenten Appeal fund drive, to help with tuition assistance and school maintenance.
"I'm looking for ways to reach out to the general community, to reach out for help," said Cardinal Keeler. He said he hopes for more partnerships with professionals who can loan their expertise to the schools for planning, raising money and other efforts.
For those who are skeptical that parents can find money to start schools, the church points to its newest school, Woodmont Academy, started by a group of parents who couldn't get their children into any of the Howard County Catholic schools.
The school for grades kindergarten through eight opened in September, near the Howard and Carroll county lines, in Baltimore County's Woodstock.
The parents affiliated with the Legionnaires of Christ, a religious order of priests. Parents raised the money for the school themselves, and are paying the bills partly through tuition that is higher than most Catholic elementaries -- about $3,300 a year compared with the typical $2,500 a year.
Already, Woodmont Academy has a waiting list.
Catholic schools How they differ:
The schools in the archdiocese have a great degree of autonomy, and fall into one of four categories.
* Parochial schools are supported financially and run by one parish.
* Regional schools draw from more than one parish.
* Independent Catholic schools are run and supported by a particular order, such as the Jesuits or the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
* Only a few high schools are run directly by the archdiocese.