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Conferees Examine Changing Role of Catholic Schools

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Catholic education in the United States could benefit from some serious soul-searching, according to many of the 54 scholars, educators, and researchers who gathered here at the Catholic University of America to examine the state of parochial education as it enters the next century.

Sponsored by the university's Life Cycle Institute and titled "Legacy at the Crossroads: The Future of Catholic Schools," the May 30-31 conference focused on the results of some 23 research projects conducted with financial support from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment.

Many of the researchers said the time is ripe for such study, especially as the demographic, economic, and public opinion shifts of recent decades have removed some the very reasons why Roman Catholic schools have thrived.

Discrimination no longer drives Catholic parents to seek a parochial education, as it did when the schools were founded last century. And if public opinion about public schools continues to improve, more parents may feel Catholic education is not worth the investment, some researchers said.

"The unstated question we should be asking is: Is there a convincing rationale to continue the existence of a Catholic education system as we move into the 21st century?" said Sister Lourdes Sheehan, who next month will take over the National Catholic Educational Association's department of chief administrators of Catholic education.

Conference participants pointed out that recent enrollment gains show parents still seek out parochial schools, but that their reasons are more varied than in the past. Some are Catholic parents who want their children to get religious training at schools; some more generally seek a values-based education; and still others simply believe the Catholic schools are more academically rigorous than their public counterparts.

The important thing, Sister Sheehan contended, is for the schools to assert their mission themselves, rather than let it be dictated by changing market forces that won't necessarily preserve the schools' Catholic identity.

"We could be left in the unfortunate position in which finances determine the final decision of what we do," she said, adding that some schools already may be losing sight of their religious roots.

One of the Life Cycle researchers, for example, found that a sizable portion of the lay staff in Catholic schools don't subscribe to certain core Catholic tenets such as the sacrament of penance and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Lay personnel now make up the majority of Catholic school principals, and about 90 percent of Catholic school teachers.

But some educators also expressed concern that the church hasn't given schools enough direction so that they can evaluate how well they've maintained their Catholic identity.

"If we are going to hold schools accountable for their Catholicity, we better know what it means to be Catholic," said Jerome Porath, the superintendent of the schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Life Cycle Institute officials plan to use both the trends examined in their research and the concerns raised at the conference to draft an overall evaluation of the future of Catholic education. The report will be modeled, in part, on A Nation at Risk, the influential 1983 critique of the nation's public schools, said James Youniss, who directs the institute.

"It's agreed the schools can benefit from a new look at policy," he told the conference-goers. "Our idea was to ground a policy discussion in empirical evidence."


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