Parents aim to start Catholic high school

December 01, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Her daughter is only in second grade now, but Gaile Waldhauser is thinking ahead -- where will Krista go to high school? Public school is out for this fourth-generation Catholic school alumna, but the nearest Catholic high schools are an hour away from her home in the Howard County portion of Sykesville.

If she and fellow parishioners from St. Joseph Catholic Community in Eldersburg succeed, they could open the first new Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Baltimore in almost 30 years.

Ms. Waldhauser said the parents are calling on their counterparts at a total of 10 parishes in Carroll, Howard and Baltimore counties to attend a meeting Jan. 28 at St. Joseph's on Liberty Road.

So far, the main interest has been among the parents of 18 children who attend St. Joseph's but go to Holy Family School in Randallstown.

Although the parents still have to study and document the demand, raise the money and get the approval of the archdiocese, they represent the first serious attempt at opening a new high school since 1966, when schools were opened in Cumberland and Severn.

"It's extremely exciting," said Ronald Valenti, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. "It's clear a great deal of interest has surfaced from the people in the area."

The grass-roots movement among the parents reflects the growth in Catholic school enrollment. Since Dr. Valenti became superintendent three years ago, enrollment has grown by about 1,000 students a year, to 33,000 in kindergarten through 12th grade. Of the total, about 8,000 are enrolled in the 22 Catholic high schools.

Although Dr. Valenti is encouraged by the parents' initiative, he said they will need to do a more thorough study of the demographics and demand. The archdiocese can help conduct those studies, he said.

The parents will also need to raise a significant amount of money, he said.

"The archdiocese is not in the position to give any money for actual construction," Dr. Valenti said.

Ms. Waldhauser is not discouraged.

"If we can find enough funds to build a new church at St. Joe, we'll find the funds for a school," she said.

Neither Dr. Valenti nor Ms. Waldhauser could name a figure. It depends on any number of variables, they said, such as whether to build new or renovate.

Dr. Valenti said the school would probably have to start with one or two grades and build each year as the students progress and new freshmen enroll.

Ms. Waldhauser and the other parents at St. Joseph would like to explore building a combination middle and high school, drawing on the sixth- through eighth-graders from several Catholic elementary schools in Carroll, Howard and Baltimore counties. Catholic elementary schools go up through the eighth grade.

This would give the school a ready population of students, and make room in those elementary schools for younger children who are on waiting lists, Ms. Waldhauser said.

Dr. Valenti said such a move would be approved only if it didn't harm the existing schools, and it would need careful study.

After a small boom in Catholic high school enrollment and construction in the 1960s, enrollment declined in the next two decades, Dr. Valenti said. Tuition rose as the teaching staff shifted from low-paid clergy and religious order sisters and brothers to lay people, and the birth rate went down.

In 1966, Archbishop Spalding High School opened in Severn and Bishop Walsh High School opened in Cumberland.

No new Catholic high schools have opened since then.

Dr. Valenti attributed the enrollment increase to the growing birth rate that is also affecting public schools, as well as a more aggressive attempt by Catholic schools to market themselves.

"It's a philosophy where expectations are high. There's a real push for parent involvement," he said.

Ms. Waldhauser said she never considered public school for her 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

"First of all, they're overcrowded. I don't like the idea that she's going to be a number," said Ms. Waldhauser, whose graduating class numbered 18 at a Catholic girls school in her native New York.

"All the statistics show that in parochial schools, they get a better education," she said. "The teachers are obviously dedicated, because they are not paid as much [as in public schools].

"They're taught values, because they're taught religion right in class."

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