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Catholic High Schools Found Sound, Yet Vulnerable

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Washington--The nation's Roman Catholic high schools are "relatively strong educational institutions," but many face pressing financial problems that threaten their well-being, a report released here last week by the National Catholic Educational Association concludes.

According to the report, "The Catholic High School: A National Portrait," the two major financial stress points for Catholic high schools are low teachers' salaries and insufficient funds for building maintenance.

"These stress points, combined with increasing financial shortages in religious communities and tuition rates that cannot be raised substantially without threatening a considerable loss of students, place Catholic high schools in a precarious financial position," the report states.

Supported by a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation and $25,000 from the St. Mary's Foundation, the report represents half of a two-part study conducted by the ncea with research assistance from the Search Institute of Minneapolis.

Principals of all 1,464 Catholic3high schools in the country were queried for the study; 910 responded to a 56-page survey. The report's "portrait" of Catholic high schools is based on the information provided by these respondents.

The schools enroll about 800,000 of the nation's 15 million high-school students, or two-thirds of all such students in nonpublic schools.

Major Intention

Begun in 1983, the ncea study was intended to create the first composite picture of these schools and to provide baseline data for future comparative studies. "Before this, we didn't have a whole lot of information available," said The Rev. Robert J. Yeager, the ncea's vice president for development, who directed the study.

The second part of the study, scheduled for release in January 1986, will examine the characteristics and experiences of students in a select group of Catholic secondary schools that enroll significant numbers of low-income students.

Although the report makes some statistical comparisons between Catholic and public high schools, the study was not conducted to draw qualitative comparisons between the two sectors, Father Yeager said.6"We're not trying to say that we're better or worse than public schools," he said.

According to the report, one of the most striking findings of the study is the high rate of teacher turnover in Catholic high schools, which "threatens the educational enterprise."

The study found that 28 percent of the responding schools' teachers have been at their current job for two years or less. More than half of Catholic high-school teachers have taught for five or fewer years, while only 8 percent of teachers in public high schools have fewer than five years' experience, the report says.

Turnover among principals is also seen as a problem in Catholic schools. During the last 10 years, the average Catholic high school has had three different principals.

The study found that schools with the highest teacher-turnover rates tend to be those reporting the smallest salary and benefits packages. "The message is clear. Staff turnover is closely related to economics," the report states.

During the 1982-83 school year, a beginning lay teacher with a bachelor's degree earned an average annual salary of $11,121 in Catholic high schools, as compared with $14,045 for public schools.

While the report states that this "financial sacrifice by faculty and staff," is part of the essential subsidy Catholic high schools need to survive, it also says that teachers must receive better compensation if turnover is to be curbed.

Financial Development

Accordingly, the report says, the high schools must develop new sources of income to raise salaries and finance needed renovations for school facilities, many of which do not meet new building-code standards.

"It's clear, we need a broader base of support if our schools are going to thrive," said Father Yeager.

The report lists several strategies schools might use to raise the funds necessary to meet expenses, including revitalizing efforts to obtain state or federal aid, possibly in the form of tuition tax credits or vouchers; adopting money-management techniques similar to those routinely used in business; and devising a development program for drawing sustained support from alumni and others with an interest in the schools.

School Climate

Speaking at the press conference at which the report was released, Mr. Yeager said the study quantified six aspects of the school climate typical of most Catholic high schools: "a strong emphasis on discipline, an orderly environment, shared commitment to academics, structure, a sense of community, and high student and teacher morale."

Disputing the widely held belief that Catholic high schools minimize behavior problems by simply expelling or suspending troublesome students, the study found that annually the schools expel only 1 percent of their students and suspend fewer than 3 percent.

Myths Shattered

The study also refuted other stereotypes often associated with Catholic high schools, Father Yeager said. "We don't just educate rich, intelligent kids from white families," he said.

On the basis of 1982-83 estimates, about one-third of the students attending Catholic secondary schools come from families with annual incomes below $20,000, another one-third come from families earning in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, and the final one-third come from families earning over $30,000.

The report states that "to a great extent, the income of the families of Catholic high-school students parallels the income distribution found nationally. Catholic students' families are not, on the average, poorer--nor are they wealthier."

Almost 18 percent of Catholic high-school students are members of minority groups, a slightly lower proportion than that of public high schools overall, the study showed. Since 1978, according to the principals surveyed, minority enrollment has increased in 37 percent of the secondary schools, decreased in 6 percent, and remained the same in 57 percent.

The proportion of minorities teaching in Catholic high schools, however, is far lower. Five percent of the schools' teachers are members of minority groups, the study found, and minorities constitute 3 percent of all school administrators and 4 percent of all school-board members.

Low Priorities

Catholic high schools tend to give low priority to such subjects as music, drama, and art; nearly half the schools have no graduation requirements in the fine arts, the study found.

Relatively low priority is also given to education of the handicapped. Almost half the schools reported that such education was not "relevant or important to their mission," the report states.

Copies of the report are available for $14.75 before April 11, or $19.75 thereafter. Write: Publication Sales Office, ncea, Suite 100, 1077 30th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20007.

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