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Catholic Educators Share Successes Brought by Enrollment Growth

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Minneapolis

Five years ago, the east Texas town of Tyler faced the closing of its only Roman Catholic high school.

Enrollment was down, leaving the school's finances shaky. The high school and the town's only Catholic elementary school had between them gone through nine principals in less than 10 years.

But their board brought in two disciplined leaders who focused on recruiting dedicated staff members and putting the schools' financial houses back in order.

Combined enrollment in the schools has since increased to 630 from 450, allowing them to pay off much of their debt.

"The stability breeds confidence," said Scott Terry, a former board president. "We now have people coming to us to help, when we used to have to go ask them."

Mr. Terry told this story of resurrection here last week as about 11,000 educators gathered for the National Catholic Educational Association's four-day annual convention.

As educators swapped ideas on issues ranging from school finance to cultural diversity, the organization announced that the success story in Tyler, Texas, has echoed across many parts of the United States in recent years.

The ranks of the country's Catholic schools grew by roughly 10,000 students this year, to 2,645,462, the NCEA reported in its annual release of enrollment figures. That represents about 79,000 more students than in the 1992-93 school year, a welcome sign for the schools, which had seen three decades of decline.

"In most of the suburbs in America, the demand of Catholic schools exceeds the number of seats available," NCEA President Leonard DeFiore said.

But the Catholic leaders also cautioned that their schools' apparent health brings with it new challenges.

Delivering the event's keynote address, Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann of Santa Rosa, Calif., urged school leaders to raise the level of their schools' visibility and service in their communities.

"When our schools can make the center of our life our story of caring for others outside of our buildings, that's when we've achieved greatness," he said.

As more parents in urban areas choose parochial schools, Catholic educators are finding themselves serving an increasingly diverse population. And while the religious schools have long held up their curriculum of basics as one secret to success, several speakers here said that curriculum needs to be more inclusive.

"It's not just about offering our institutions to black people," said the Rev. Joseph Brown, a former director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. "You have to think how would you structure your curriculum and educational programs as if [the students] were all black."

While seeking to infuse more cultural sensitivity into their schools, the Catholic educators spent much of last week's meeting discussing how to maintain the schools' religious identity.

Although experiments with government-financed vouchers offer the promise of more students, some expressed fears that parochial schools could risk becoming more like public schools if they accept public funds.

But vouchers needn't pose a threat to a school's identity, contended John D. Rudella, a Wisconsin public high school assistant principal who studied the effect of vouchers on a Milwaukee private school. He suggested that schools make their own missions and identities clear to incoming students and parents.

"When you get voucher students into your school, what they will tend to do is bring their culture with them," he told a group at one workshop.

Those who lobby state and national lawmakers, however, also urged Catholic educators to ensure that voucher proposals don't include any strings before they decide to support them. The Rev. William F. Davis of the U.S. Catholic Conference said a failed voucher plan for the District of Columbia schools included a stipulation that the parents could opt out of religious education for their children, an issue few Catholic schools consider negotiable. ("Religious School Vouchers Get Day in Court," March 6, 1996.)

"The devil is in the details," the priest said.

Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, who addressed the convention's opening session, drew applause for supporting a plan to give families with annual incomes under $39,000 tax credits to be used for education-related expenses, such as a computer or private school tuition.

But before the conference had ended, an education subcommittee in the Minnesota House voted down the tax-credit plan. The Republican governor vowed to keep pushing the proposal.

--JEFF ARCHER

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