City Catholic schools are shrinking oases of learning

November 12, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In suburbia, the Catholics want schools. They have magnificent schools in the city, but people are leaving the city. In the last 20 years, the number of Carroll County Catholics has tripled. In Howard and Harford counties, it's doubled. In Anne Arundel, it's up by nearly half.

And, at St. Elizabeth of Hungary School, in the city of Baltimore, Dick Gatto wonders where everybody's gone.

In the counties, there's a waiting list to get into the Catholic schools. Parents are asking for state help to build Catholic elementary and high schools there. And why not? Over the generations, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has shepherded thousands of children through a wonderful school system, which now needs expanding in the suburbs.

And Dick Gatto, ducking out of a hawkish wind on Lakewood Avenue, just off Patterson Park in East Baltimore, opens the door at St. Elizabeth's and tries to gaze into a murky future. His is the flip side of the suburban boom. The archdiocese's school enrollment, down in the '70s and '80s, has now boomed. Nearly 35,000 kids, including many non-Catholics, are now enrolled. But the big growth, and the big need, is out there in the counties. In the city, shrinkage has set in.

In such places as St. Elizabeth's, which opened its doors in 1902, which once had 1,300 students and still had about 500 as recently as the 1960s, they're now below 200 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and principal Gatto got word last week that at least four more of his kids will be withdrawing before the first of the year.

"Six years ago," he was saying last week, "we had 500 kids. Two years ago, more than 250. Last year, 220. Right now, 196 kids. But now I find out these four kids' parents are moving. Wonderful kids, academically and every other way. But their parents are all getting out of the neighborhood. They're moving to places like Dundalk, which is no prize because they've got their own problems out there. I mean, they have beautiful neighborhoods. They have wonderful people. But they have some of the same problems we have."

It melts your heart to see the things that are happening at St. Elizabeth's. You walk into one classroom after another, you see kids who are universally involved, who are enthusiastic, who are riveted on the things their teachers are saying.

"Now, what is a pronoun?" Pat Kalinowski asks her students. Every hand shoots into the air. She points to a sentence on a blackboard: "The dog is chewing a bone."

"What kind of a bone?" she jokes. "A dinosaur bone?" The kids giggle. Then Kalinowski gets serious: What's a pronoun for "the dog"? "He," says a girl. "Or she," says a boy. "A pronoun for mother?" "She." "For window?" "It." The Q & A is rapid-fire. The atmosphere is serious, but also loving. The kids, by the way, are second-graders.

In this room, and across the school, they are divided about equally, black and white, with a sprinkling of Asian students. Virtually all go to high school from here -- no insignificant achievement, when compared with public school disappearance rates -- and Dick Gatto says about three-quarters eventually move on to colleges, to places like Duke, the Air Force Academy, Virginia Tech, Loyola, Maryland, James Madison and the Coast Guard Academy.

But, for all its virtues (including tuition that's roughly $2,000 -- pretty remarkable, compared to many area private schools), St. Elizabeth's struggles to hold onto students. The Patterson Park area is still one of the city's prizes, but residents face situations previous generations never had: absentee landlords who rent to drifters; drug traffickers; some Section 8 low-rent neighbors whose living habits are deplorable by anyone's standards.

"This school is a kind of oasis," says a woman sitting outside Dick Gatto's office. "Even if I moved away, I'd bring my kids here. But there are people in the neighborhood now who don't put out the garbage, they just toss it into the alley. They'll urinate on the street."

"My son was beat up one day," says a woman sitting next to her. "I won't let him walk home alone now. I pick him up, I don't feel safe. We live two blocks from here. I drive here."

This is the kind of concern that has fueled the suburban migration of the last few decades. That's why they're clamoring for more Catholic schools out in the counties, while wondering what to do with the left-behind gems like St. Elizabeth's.

"People are leaving," says Dick Gatto. "We draw children from all around the area, but from the neighborhoods around here, they're moving out. It's the perception of crime, the whole city scene. It isn't race. Highlandtown people make do. People get on each other's nerves sometimes, but they get along.

"But that fear of crime," Gatto says, and then shifts gears slightly. "What we want to be is not just a first-rate school, but also a stabilizing factor for the community. We want to be a place that makes this community work."

But pieces of the community keep drifting away. While, out there in suburbia, they can't build the Catholic schools fast enough.

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