A vexing question lies at the heart of the gathering of 12,000 Catholic educators this week at the Baltimore Convention Center: Are Catholic school graduates different, from a moral standpoint, from students who attended other public or private schools?
The troubling suspicion is that many graduates of the nation's largest system of parochial schools are not.
"I submit to you that kids who leave us had better be different because they spend time with us," said John J. Findlater, a Catholic schools consultant from Detroit who has been a parochial elementary and high school principal. "I mean, they'd better stand out. And that's my terror; they're not standing out. They're blending in."
Findlater spoke during a workshop session yesterday at the annual meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), which is meeting here through Friday. He and other Catholic leaders challenged Catholic educators to refocus their mission on religious principles or risk slipping further into the values, or lack of values, of mainstream culture.
The concern is that as demand grows among parents to send their children to Catholic schools for a quality education, the schools' religious mission will fall by the wayside.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been to a Catholic school and the first thing they show me is the computer lab," Findlater said. "We let the power of Catholic education slip through our fingers when we allow our schools to become little Sylvan Learning Centers."
Data released yesterday show Catholic school enrollment increased by 4,600 students nationwide last year, bringing the total to 2.6 million. Baltimore's Catholic schools added 500 new students to their rolls. In the past six years, national enrollment has increased by 81,000 students, and 41 percent of Catholic schools have a waiting list for admission. NCEA officials said they project this growth trend to continue into the next decade.
"That means there are a substantial number of parents out there who are not able to send their children to a Catholic school simply because we do not have room for them," said Robert Kealey, executive director of NCEA's Elementary School Department.
In addition, fewer priests, nuns or brothers are on the faculties. More than 90 percent of the professional staff are lay people. And the schools serve increasing numbers of non-Catholic students -- 13.4 percent this year compared with 11.2 percent in 1980 and 2.7 percent in 1972. That number goes up dramatically in the inner city, where a majority of students in many parochial schools are not Catholic.
The solution, Findlater said, is to make sure the entire school -- principal, faculty, students and their parents -- is focused on a Gospel-centered mission. At the entrance to his school, he posted a sign: "Be it known to all who enter here: That Christ is the reason for this school, the unseen but ever present teacher in its classes, the model of its faculty and the inspiration for its students."
Beyond that, he said, Catholic school teachers must offer their students moral guidance on the issues that confront them. Anyone who did not address the Clinton-Lewinsky affair missed a key teaching opportunity, he said..
"Our kids were waiting to hear from us," he said.
"Moral teaching is vitally important," said Gerard F. Baumbach, executive vice president of William H. Sadlier Inc., a New York-based publisher of Catholic religious education textbooks. "It means dealing with hard issues with them and not avoiding them. Often our young people don't understand the challenges because they don't have the background."
Catholic teachers also must be models of faith for their students, Baumbach said.
"We profess this faith that we live," he said. "This may not mean we stand on a street corner. We profess our faith with hands, feet, eyes, nose, mouth, our expressions. In many ways, the verbal is easier. The nonverbal can be the most difficult one."
The conventioneers heard yesterday from one appreciative alumnus who's done well since his graduation -- the once-mischievous Timmy Russert, who became moderator of "Meet the Press."
He said the nuns and priests he had from elementary school through college "taught me how to read and write. But they also taught me right from wrong.
"You do change lives," Russert said. "And I have no doubt you have saved lives. You have given hope and opportunity to millions."