Despite Acclaim for Results, Catholic Schools Are Short of Money and Students

August 09, 1992|By THOMAS TOCH

*TC A 15th Century galleon knifes through the high seas, a huge cross emblazoned on its mainsail. "Discover Catholic School 1992," reads the tag line. This spring, the ship and its accompanying logo turned up nationwide on billboards, buttons, banners, bumper stickers, posters, pins, press releases, T-shirts and TV ads. The nation's once-demure Catholic schools are going Madison Avenue.

But not on a whim; the Roman Catholic education system, established in the 19th Century to educate the children of Catholic immigrants and an alternative to public schools for generations of blue-collar families, is, in many parts of the country, at the point of financial collapse. Ironically, the crisis in Catholic education comes at a time when parochial schools are winning praise for their educational achievements, especially in the nation's troubled inner cities.

Above all, the nation's 8,600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools have been devastated by shifting demographics and the decline of Catholicism in America. The flight of middle-class Catholics to the suburbs has left empty classrooms and a sea of red ink in the dioceses of the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where the largest numbers of parochial schools are located.

"Now we have students where there are no buildings and buildings where there are no students," says Sister Lourdes Sheehan of the U.S. Catholic Conference. In one measure of the problem, the Archdiocese of New York this year cut its subsidy to its 214 schools by 42 percent.

With the decline of Catholic religious orders, the percentage of -- teachers in Catholic schools who are sisters, brothers or priests has dropped from 90 percent in 1950 to about 10 percent today. This, too, has hit Catholic schools' coffers hard, since lay teachers demand higher salaries than their "religious" counterparts, many of whom have take vows of poverty and who receive only small stipends.

As a result, many Catholic schools have had to hike their tuitions. Schools frequently charged no tuition two decades ago; today, high school tuitions of $3,000 are common. But the higher tuitions are putting Catholic schools out of reach of the very working-poor families that parochial schools were designed to serve.

The result has been a wave of cutbacks, mergers and closings.

St. John Newman High School in an Italian neighborhood of South Philadelphia is typical of the survivors. Enrolling 2,700 students in the early 1970s, it's down to a third of that number today and is struggling to keep its doors open.

Nationally, Catholic enrollment has plunged from 5.7 million in 1964 to 2.5 million today. And the students they educate are increasingly different from those of a generation ago. Like parochial schools sponsored by the Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist churches, Catholic schools now educate large numbers of inner city minority students. Nationally, minority enrollment has risen from 11 percent to 23 percent of the Catholic school population since 1970.

Also, fewer and fewer Catholics are attending parochial schools, especially in center cities. Hales Franciscan High School is an all-male, all-black school on the South Side of Chicago. Only 10 percent of its students are Catholics.

Yet, in spite of their on-the-brink finances, many inner city parochial schools are producing impressive results. Hales, for example, requires only a C average and average scores on basic skills tests for admission. But 90 percent of the school's 300 students graduate and 90 percent of its graduates go to college.

Nationally, Catholic schools have a 95 percent graduation rate -- (vs. 85 percent in public education) and 83 percent college attendance among graduates (compared to 52 percent in public education). In 1990, Catholic school 8th-graders passed federally funded math tests at nearly twice the rate of public school students (though the failure rate among parochial students was itself high).

"On paper, parochial students often aren't any better than public school kids," says J.W. Carmichael, a chemistry professor who heads a highly regarded premed program at Xavier University in New Orleans, a school that draws heavily on the city's large parochial school system, "but they are a lot more disciplined, a lot less likely to drop out."

The achievement advantages that Catholic schools enjoy are partly explained by the fact that they attract education-minded families. Virtually no elementary schools and only about a third of Catholic secondary schools have academic admission requirements. But many more Catholic school students (and private-school students generally) have college-educated parents, and they are less likely to live in abject poverty than public school students.

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