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NCEA's 1st Lay President Rides In on Waves of Change

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In 1976, Leonard DeFiore became the first lay person to be the superintendent of schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which served about 37,000 students.

Twelve years later, he had the similar distinction of becoming the first lay superintendent for the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., and its 18,000 students.

And last month, he took the reins of the National Catholic Educational Association here, which represents schools through college and seminary and Catholic school administrators. Mr. DeFiore is the first lay person to be president in the group's 92 years.

Mr. DeFiore says these "firsts" in his career represent the waves of change sweeping through Catholic education. Ninety percent of the teachers at U.S. Catholic schools are lay people, and the number of "religious" in principalships and other leadership positions is expected to decline in the coming years.

"It's very clear that Catholic schools are now a lay enterprise," said Bishop John J. Leibrecht of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau (Mo.) Diocese and the chairman of the NCEA board.

One of Mr. DeFiore's biggest challenges will be answering the question raised by the same trends that put him in the organization's top job: How can Catholic schools maintain their identity as lay people assume more leadership positions?

At the same time, Catholic education must contend with its own success. After three decades of declining enrollments, Catholic schools have seen four consecutive years of increases.

"For 20 years, the problem was we had more buildings than we had children," Mr. DeFiore said in a recent interview. "We have quickly turned in many places, especially in the suburbs, to where we have many more children who want to come than we have buildings to put them in."

Playing Offense

The recent enrollment increases have coincided with an effort by the NCEA to overcome demographic trends. U.S. Catholic school enrollment peaked at 5.6 million in 1964, but fell as families left the cities, where parish schools tended to be concentrated.

During the past 10 years, while Sister Catherine T. McNamee was president, the NCEA encouraged local schools to improve their marketing and fund-raising efforts. Many Catholic schools also responded to the needs of parents by adding early-childhood and pre-kindergarten programs, which have helped boost overall enrollment.

Enrollment is up by about 160,000 students from its low of about 2.47 million in 1990.

With Catholic education apparently no longer on the defensive, Mr. DeFiore said he hopes the NCEA can focus more on instruction. Although parents often praise Catholic schools for emphasizing "the basics," NCEA officials have said schools should explore such innovations as team teaching, block scheduling, and computer-aided instruction.

"I don't think the basic content needs to change from learning to read, and write, and count," said Jerome Porath, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which serves about 102,000 students. "What is changing is the form of the delivery of that content."

Catholic education also faces a decline in the number of school staff members who are nuns or other members of the religious community. Since 1965, the number of nuns in the United States has been cut in half, to about 90,000. The drop in the number of priests--who are less likely than nuns to work in schools--has been less dramatic, but a majority of priests are near retirement age.

Mr. DeFiore, who attended Catholic schools in Philadelphia, said, "We have been developing programs to make sure that when we hire people, we hire people who understand the mission of the Catholic school."

Shaping Debates

Another question the NCEA must grapple with is how to justify continued support for the many inner-city Catholic schools that have predominantly non-Catholic student bodies. Suburban Catholics on waiting lists may be less willing to support city schools in neighborhoods where few Catholics live.

Mr. DeFiore plans to continue efforts begun during Sister McNamee's tenure to encourage Catholic school parents to push for measures that would allow them to use public funds to help pay school tuition.

Bishop Leibrecht said opponents of private school choice have successfully framed the debate in terms of what's best for the public school system. But he said that as Mr. DeFiore steps into the presidency, the NCEA will concentrate on reshaping that debate into what's best for parents.

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