Successful Schools Are Right Under Our Noses

June 03, 1991|By TIM BAKER

The Greater Baltimore Committee's exciting new vision for Baltimore as an international center for the life sciences cannot be achieved without schools. If you start with that premise, how can you explain the following:

1. The Catholic schools in Baltimore consistently produce students who stay in school, who achieve high scores on national educational tests, who graduate and who go on to college.

2. A growing financial crisis now threatens the city's Catholic schools.

3. Baltimore's civic and business leadership ignores the Catholic schools.

In fact, Baltimore's parochial schools have never been more important to the city and its economic future. They educate 12,000 students, one-fourth of whom are financially disadvantaged, half of whom are minorities, and two-thirds of whom are not even Catholics.

The Catholic schools have developed an effective educational program. They operate in a highly decentralized system. Each school has its own board of trustees. Principals hire and fire teachers. The curriculum focuses strictly on basic academic courses and stresses performance, discipline and hard work. The schools teach parents how to help their children, and they hold parents accountable for their children's progress.

The Catholic schools' approach produces results. Their students consistently outperform their public-school counterparts by significant margins in all academic disciplines. They are four times less likely to drop out of school. In Baltimore, 96 per cent of them graduate and 80 per cent of them go on to college.

As a Rand Corp. study concluded last summer, Catholic schools have achieved particular success with disadvantaged and minority students. Although minority students score lower than their white classmates in both Catholic and public schools, the gap narrows markedly by the 11th grade in Catholic schools. Minority students in Catholic schools are three times more likely to graduate in four years than they are in public schools. Children from single-parent families drop out of public school at twice the rate of other students, but Catholic schools have reduced their dropout rate to the same level as other students.

The Catholic school system achieves these impressive results with a smaller staff and less money. A Catholic school education costs about $2,000 per student -- less than half the cost in the Baltimore public schools.

Bureaucracy must account for a major portion of the difference. The Archdiocese of Baltimore educates 31,002 students in 101 schools in the city and the surrounding counties. Its entire central staff consists of only 16 people! In contrast, the Baltimore public school system employs 570 people in its headquarters to run a system of 108,000 students in 180 schools. Comparable per-student staff levels would reduce the North Avenue bureaucracy to 56 people.

In fairness, the Catholic schools enjoy some special advantages. For example, they do not carry the costly obligation to educate children with severe learning disabilities, physical handicaps or discipline problems. Instead, they teach self-selected and highly-motivated students whose families are willing and able to pay tuition.

Those advantages, however, don't entirely account for the superior results. For example, although the educational level of parents of Catholic-school students exceeds that of public-school parents, studies show that the Catholic schools' achievement advantage over public schools is greatest for children whose parents have the least education.

The point is that the Baltimore Catholic schools succeed. They work. They already produce the results the city's economic future requires.

A growing financial crisis, however, has undermined the Catholic schools' ability to continue to produce. The middle-class exodus from Baltimore has included black and white Catholics. Their departure to suburbia has sapped the church's city parishes which must support the parochial schools. Only 20 per cent of the teachers are now priests and nuns. Lay teachers cost more money, and they leave the system for the substantially higher salaries in the city and county school systems.

Last summer, the liberal Brookings Institute recommended public financial assistance for Catholic and other private schools. In Maryland, however, the Catholic schools have never received any support from either city or state government, although the Supreme Court has upheld some forms of public funding for them.

Meanwhile, the Catholic schools' financial crisis deepens. School buildings are old and crumbling. Tuitions rise. Inner-city parents cannot afford the increases. Enrollments fall.

Hardly anybody, however, seems to be paying attention. The business community's awakening concern about education seems to focus exclusively on the city's public schools, even though a number of business leaders in the city are Catholics themselves. The Knott Foundation has made the Catholic schools a priority, but no one else seems to have noticed their difficulties.

The situation suggests a dysfunctional dynamic. We invest time, effort and money in a system that doesn't work while we ignore the growing problems of a system that does.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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