Catholic Educators Hopeful About Schools' Future

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Chicago--Catholic educators meeting here last week were buoyed by the release of a study showing that Catholic-school students perform better than their public-school counterparts on math and science tests, and by reports of a surge in preschool and kindergarten enrollment.

Some 17,000 Catholic-school teachers, administrators, and other religious and educational leaders gathered here for the National Catholic Educational Association's convention, exposition, and religious-education congress.

The study comparing Catholic and public-school students, conducted by Valerie E. Lee and Carolee Stewart, both of the University of Michigan, reached conclusions consistent with those of other studies comparing the two sectors, the researchers said.

Using data from the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Michigan researchers found that 600 to 700 Catholic-school pupils in the 3rd, 7th, and 11th grades scored an average of 3.6 percent to 6.4 percent higher in math and science than public-school pupils.

"We are delighted to have research data to support what we believe,'' said Catherine T. McNamee, president of the ncea

The study showed that math proficiency was higher for Catholic-school students at all three grade levels and for all racial groups.

Although black students scored lower than white students in both Catholic and public schools, the gap between scores for black and white students was consistently lower in Catholic schools.

This "demonstrates a thrust toward social equity in those schools not typical in most schools in America," said the authors.

The report also found that parents of Catholic-school pupils were more likely to have higher educational levels than parents of public-school students.

Although the number of students in Catholic schools has declined by roughly 50 percent over the last 20 years--nationwide, Catholic high schools and parish elementary schools are closing at a rate of about 100 a year--educators here said they saw signs of change around them.

While they have been troubled by the declines, they said, they have also seen their colleagues become increasingly sophisticated in using marketing and development teechniques to expand the pool of potental students and to raise money to ensure the financial health of their schools.

Delegates to the ncea convention, in fact, overflowed from meeting sessions with such titles as "Successful Development in an Inner-city High School," "Breathing Life into a Dying School and Parish," and ''Consolidation--Yay or Nay."

And the news about enrollment of younger pupils, they said, provided a sense of optimism about the future.

Last fall, more than 200,000 students entered Catholic kindergartens, the largest number ever, officials said. Another 76,000 students attended prekindergarten programs in Catholic schools, more than double the number six years ago.

"I hope that we may all see these figures as indicative of a bright future," said Archbishop Eugene A. Marino, of Atlanta, the keynote speaker at the convention. "But however we study the situations and the statistics, the truth comes down to the fact that so many self-sacrificing people start anew everyday, building bridges as they go, undaunted by setbacks, so that the message finds its way easily into the young minds of the church."

Such stories among Catholic schools were much in evidence at the convention.

A group of Catholic educators from Milwaukee told how they have used advertising to promote an interest in the 12 high schools in the Milwaukee archdiocese.

"Collaboration brought us a strength that is bringing us through hard times," said Mary M. Olson, principal of St. Mary's Academy in Milwaukee.

Enrollment at the high schools has increased 17 percent since last year, when a series of commercials began to air on Milwaukee television stations.

"The commercials are designed to make people consider a Catholic school. Then they may go to an open house where the schools can sell themselves," said Dan M. McKinley, executive director of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan School Development Consortium.

At Chicago's Hales Franciscan High School, a different saga unfoldel10led this year when the school was told a deficit approaching $300,000 was too great for the church to continue to subsidize. In that case, parents and alumni joined together to raise money and lobby church officials, who finally agreed to keep the school open.

"When people say schools should be closed because of lower enrollment, I ask two questions," said the Rev. Jesse Cox, an English and religion teacher at the school. "Are we a business or a church? And is the Gospel worth preaching?"

Hales Franciscan is an all-black inner-city school with 285 students, many of them non-Catholic. Nationwide, minority students make up nearly 23 percent of all elementary and secondary enrollments in Catholic schools.

The stories of city schools pose a fundamental question for Catholic educators that was explored in several sessions last week: To what extent can the church maintain its presence in the inner city.

"Our schools have been a source of educational salvation for thousands of African-Americans, who are making a signficant contribution to American society," said the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese of Chicago.

Noting that many inner-city and minority students in Catholic schools are not members of the church, Bishop Gregory called on the church to reach out to them and their families.

But the Rev. Michael DeVito, director of St. Justin Elementary School in Hartford, Conn., said he feared that while the church proclaims its commitment to the inner city, it is willing to let many schools there close.

At St. Justin, where enrollment has dropped to 159, with only 15 Catholic students, church officials have decided that the school will close in June.

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