Hands popped up as Monsignor G. Michael Schleupner asked a class of second-graders for facts about Martin Luther King Jr.
"He gave a speech called 'I Have A Dream,' " said one child.
"He went to jail," said another.
"Martin Luther King Jr. was doing things that made people uncomfortable, and he was put in jail," said Schleupner, who has been a pastor of St. Margaret's Church in Bel Air for the past year.
Schleupner's recent discussion on the civil rights leader at St. Margaret's Elementary School in Bel Air is an example of many initiatives the school offers, officials said.
Character is the focus during this year's Catholic Schools Week, which is being celebrated Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.
"I am stressing to everyone that parish priests and other members of the clergy visit the classrooms and talk with the students," Schleupner said. "I want us to contribute to the forming of the children by including our faith in the classroom."
The theme for the week, sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is "Catholic Schools: The Good News About Education."
"Catholic schools do good work all year around," said Karen M. Ristau, president of the National Catholic Education Association. "But this week we want to focus everyone's attention on the fact that Catholic schools are good news. In addition to learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, students also learn responsibility and how to become persons of character and integrity."
St. Margaret's is implementing the school's theme for the year, respect, in the school's planned activities, said Principal Jane Dean.
"We're teaching our students how we show respect to community leaders, parents, priests, clergy, and teachers," said Dean, who has been at the school - the largest parish school in the Archdiocese of Baltimore - for 25 years, eight of them as principal. "During this week we celebrate what Catholic education is and what it means to them."
Open houses, a teacher appreciation lunch and the dedication of a new gym are among the activities planned in the county's Catholic schools. Also, the teacher of the year will be honored, students will serve lunch to the priests and other clergy, community leaders will visit, and many plan to participate in a community program for needy families.
"We tried to plan activities that help the kids give back to their community and their community leaders," Dean said.
During the week, the school's 850 students in preschool through eighth grade will be asked to bring in jeans to be donated to the Happy Helpers for the Homeless Drive.
The message of Catholic Schools Week is particularly relevant for this area, officials say.
Despite the quality of education and growing waiting lists at some of the area's 90 Catholic schools, enrollment in religious schools is declining in urban areas, said Robert Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore for the past 17 years. And there is little money to expand in suburban areas, he said.
In the past decade, 10 Baltimore-area Catholic schools have closed. Although the closings have tapered off and some areas might have a need for expansion, money is scarce, he said.
"We see the growing need for schools in the suburbs all over, but we have a continued challenge that revolves around financial restrictions," Valenti said.
"It costs $35 to $40 million to build a new high school, and revenue is based on tuition," he said. Each school is autonomous, although it falls under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
John Carroll School, the only Catholic high school in Harford County, had a waiting list of 41 students at the start of the year, and the number is growing, said Principal Paul Barker.
Because the operations budget is based on tuition, expansions or renovations require a capital campaign, Barker said.
John Carroll, with 893 students, charges the fourth-highest tuition among the archdiocese's high schools, $10,650 a year. An increase in tuition isn't feasible, Barker said.
"There was a time when Catholic schools relied on the free labor of the nuns and the priests, but those times are long gone," he said. "Now we have to pay the teachers, and our operating budget goes to cover expenses and salaries."
The impact of the military base realignment, public school redistricting and the rapid growth of the county might increase demand in the near future, he said. Harford County is expected to see an influx of military personnel because of the realignment.
"We are the only [Catholic] high school between the Beltway and Delaware," said Barker, who runs the school on a $9.5 million-a-year budget. "We've been told that the BRAC impact won't be visible until 2010. But right now, short of raising tuition to $30,000 to raise funds for a new school, it just isn't feasible."
Other independent schools, including Harford Friends School and Harford Lutheran School, might accommodate some of the students, said Barker.
"Harford Friends is very small, and Harford Lutheran is only a bit larger," he said. "Both of those schools are looking to get off the ground, and based on the performance of those schools in other areas, I expect them to grow nicely over the next decade."