Enrollment at St. Ambrose School has been steadily rising in recent years, forcing some parents to place their children on a waiting list for admission -- a typical situation at many Catholic schools.
What's notable about St. Ambrose is that it is in the tough Pimlico neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore and most of its students aren't Catholic.
As 12,000 Catholic school educators from across the country gather at the Baltimore Convention Center today through Friday to discuss the challenges facing parochial education, the nation's inner-city Catholic schools are rebounding -- mostly because of non-Catholic children.
In neighborhoods such as Pimlico, where drug use is rampant, gunfire is common and children are frequently raised by a single parent or grandparents, schools such as St. Ambrose are a haven for their students and a community stabilizer.
"I've been into some of our schools in very rough neighborhoods, and it's like stepping onto an island of peace," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore.
The Baltimore Archdiocese is a national leader in rebuilding inner-city schools through corporate scholarships, mainly for African-American students. Its 3-year-old "Partners in Education" program -- which provides tuition aid -- is an example of the ways urban dioceses are trying to find creative ways to fund these schools.
Similar programs have been initiated in urban dioceses with long histories, including Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Boston and Buffalo.
As more outside resources become available to offset tuition, which averages $2,900 a year in Baltimore's Catholic elementary schools, parents are responding.
"These are non-Catholic, non-white parents rushing to attend schools run by Catholics who are mostly white," said Leonard DeFiore, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, the group meeting here this week. "What does that tell you? The primary motivation isn't racial, it isn't geographical, it isn't even religious. It's parents doing what they think is best for their kids."
The pent-up demand for Catholic education among urban parents was very evident in Baltimore last year. More than 20,000 Baltimore-area families applied for 400 scholarships to private or parochial schools made available by the Children's Scholarship Fund, a new national program founded by wealthy proponents of school choice.
These low-income parents are seeking education for their children that, according to several recent studies, is superior to that offered by public schools.
"I can tell you that a lot of research, and a lot of very good research, that has been done on tens of thousands has shown unequivocally that poor and minority children, in other words, urban children, who attend Catholic schools do far better than their counterparts who attend urban public schools," said Janine Bempechat, a Harvard University education professor.
Skeptics of these studies point out that Catholic schools get to select which students they accept. Bempechat acknowledged that point, but added that "there is a lot of evidence that there is something going on in Catholic schools that is not going on in public schools that is accounting for this success, and it cannot be laid solely at the feet of self-selection."
In contrast to inner-city Catholic schools, suburban parochial schools are heavily Catholic in enrollment. They have waiting lists of Catholics -- in Baltimore's suburbs, these total almost 1,000 students -- and many are putting on additions or building schools from scratch.
These suburban schools bear little resemblance to the image of Catholic education imparted by the movie "The Bells of St. Mary's." At many such schools, only a few nuns and brothers remain as teachers, computers abound and daily dismissals are exercises in traffic control as parents pick up their children in fleets of vans and SUVs.
At St. Joseph School in Fullerton in northeast Baltimore County last week, Principal S. Joyce Thaler gestured to the northeast and ticked off the Catholic schools beyond St. Joseph that are at capacity. "The closest place you might find an opening or two is St. Joan of Ark in Aberdeen," she said.
In Bel Air, Kristin Rupprecht has been facing a typical problem for suburban Catholic parents. After losing out two years in a row in a lottery for admission to preschool at St. Margaret in Bel Air, Rupprecht finally hit the jackpot in March when her son Colin's name was the 16th of 17 drawn in an admissions lottery. Colin will enter "Catholic education is alive and kicking at St. Frances."
Lisa Payne, tuition finance officer at St. Frances Academy
kindergarten this fall. "We want our children to have that faith identity. It's important to both my husband and me," she said.
For years, it was a different story in urban Catholic schools. As city neighborhoods began changing from middle-class white to predominantly African-American in the 1960s and 1970s, churches and schools built by European immigrants saw drastic declines.