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Catholic Educators Reveal Issues for Schools Meeting

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Boston--Four months after receiving a strong vote of confidence from the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, Catholic educators last week announced details about the issues they plan to address at their forthcoming "National Congress on Catholic Schools for the 21st Century."

About 250 delegates to the congress will set strategies to "chart the course for a larger and stronger Catholic-school network in the United States," Sister Catherine J. McNamee, president of the National Catholic Education Association, said at the ncea's annual convention here.

The congress, which will convene in Washington Nov. 6-10, will come at a paradoxical time for Catholic schools, Catholic educators note.

While Catholic schools continue to be plagued by such longtime problems as declining enrollments and tightening budgets, they say, several recent developments have bolstered the image of Catholic education.

They note, for instance, that research reports continue to find a higher level of student achievement in the Catholic schools than in their public counterparts and that some education-reform advocates hold up Catholic schools as models of efficiency and site-based governance that should be copied by the public schools.

"There is more intellectual and emotional support for Catholic schools now than there was in the 60's and 70's," Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said at the convention. "I would put the health of the Catholic schools very high. Obviously, they are very threatened by costs."

In November, the bishops' conference adopted a statement reaffirming their support for Catholic schools and calling for greater efforts to ensure that schools are available for all Catholic parents who want to send their children to one. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1990.)

Last week's four-day ncea convention was expected to draw 15,000 to 20,000 Catholic-school teachers, administrators, and other officials.

Among the dozens of presenters scheduled to participate were such education newsmakers as State Representative Polly Williams of Wisconsin, the chief proponent of Milwaukee's experimental choice plan that includes non-sectarian private schools, and Terry M. Moe, a political-science professor at Stanford University and the co-author with John Chubb of the book Politics, Markets, and America's Schools.

Archbishop Pio Laghi, the pro-prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education--the Vatican's highest education official--said in a keynote address that Catholic schools must use "faith, leadership, and creativity" to address the challenges of fewer religious teachers and increased financial costs.

The archbishop also called on Catholic educators in the United States to recommit themselves to serving two key groups--Hispanics and Catholics who have moved to the suburbs or to the Sunbelt.

"Our Hispanic brothers and sisters are deserving of special outreach," he said. "We need to find ways to provide greater access for Hispanic children to our Catholic schools and catechistical programs."

Noting the mobility of U.S. Catholics from their core presence in urban areas, the archbishop said, "Catholic education needs to respond to these moves, to provide educational opportunity where the people are."

Meanwhile, officials at the ncea meeting said the congress on the future of Catholic schools is being organized around five broad themes: the Catholic identity of the church's schools, leadership, school governance and finance, the Catholic school and society, and the schools' role in public policy and political action.

The delegates will include Catholic-school officials, bishops, parents, business and government leaders, and education researchers.

A keynote speaker for the session will be the Rev. Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and novelist who has written frequently about Catholic schools, sometimes to the consternation of the church hierarchy in the United States.

A series of 18 regional meetings to gather information for the congress began last month and will continue through September.

Also, a series of essays examining the five key themes was released last week.

The issue of parental choice, one most Catholic educators have sought to see extended to nonpublic schools, is expected to be a major focus of the congress.

In one of the essays, John E. Coons, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, outlines a system of choice that includes private schools in which parents not choosing their local public school would receive a "scholarship" equivalent to 90 percent of the statewide per-pupil expenditure. The scholarship could then be used to enroll their children in any other school, public or private.

"No serious reform of education in this country can ignore the lessons of the Catholic school," Mr. Coons writes.

Also last week:

  • About 100 demonstrators marched outside the Hynes Convention Center here on the first day of the convention to protest what an organizer said was the Catholic Church's lack of aids-prevention and -education efforts.
  • The protest was organized by the Boston chapter of act-up, an advocacy group that seeks increased government support for aids research and health-care services. Police arrested one convention participant who allegedly struck a demonstrator.
  • Ncea officials announced a yearlong national marketing campaign for Catholic schools. The campaign includes a marketing handbook for local schools with recommendations on advertising and public relations.
  • The Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company announced the establishment of a foundation to provide grants to Catholic-school teachers who integrate Christian values into the classroom.

Officials of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill presented $50,000 to the ncea for the foundation.

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