Without Abandonment

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Catholic school systems have to change with the times to maintain their presence in urban areas.

A few blocks made a world of difference when Angela Rebbert was growing up in southeast Baltimore in the early 1960s.

Where you lived depended to a great extent on whether your family was of Italian, Polish, German, or Ukrainian descent. If your parents were good Catholics, and they probably were, it also often determined which church you attended and which parochial school you went to.

Ms. Rebbert, whose Italian grandfather came here to work in the shipyards of the Bethlehem Steel Corp., dutifully attended Our Lady of Pompei at a time when the Roman Catholic elementary school was so full that some of the upper-grade classes were held in the row houses across the street.

Though the Sacred Heart of Jesus School sat just a few blocks away, Ms. Rebbert and her classmates had little contact with it. While Our Lady of Pompei was filled mostly with students of Italian descent, Sacred Heart was founded to serve a predominantly German parish.

"Back then, you were a parish school, and you stayed a parish school," says Ms. Rebbert, who is now the principal at her alma mater. "You just stayed in your world."

But the distance between the parishes now seems smaller, their schools drawn closer by a common concern. Caught between a recent bout of urban flight and the loss of many of the blue-collar jobs that traditionally supported the area, the six Catholic elementary schools in southeast Baltimore have been losing students. When Ms. Rebbert took the principalship of Our Lady of Pompei 11 years ago, the school enrolled about 245 students. Now it has 192.

Viewing the schools' figures with the rational eye of an investor, one might say it's time to pull out.

Across the country, Catholic dioceses and archdioceses are struggling to maintain an urban presence despite many trends that seem to conspire against them. They face the continually rising cost of maintaining aging buildings, while paying for predominantly lay faculty members who require much higher wages than the nuns who traditionally staffed Catholic schools.

But the parochial schools in the city that raise tuition too high also face the prospect of pricing out the very urban students they seek to serve and eventually contributing to further enrollment declines.

Changing Times

National surveys suggest that parochial schools have lost some of these battles in many cities. Although Catholic enrollment in the United States has been rebounding since it hit a low of 2.4 million in the 1991-92 school year, most of the growth since then has been in the suburbs. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, the number of Catholic elementary schools in the nation's urban areas fell from 3,762 in the 1983-84 school year to 2,224 in 1995-96. For urban Catholic high schools, the drop was from 846 to 508.

Some dioceses, however, are meeting the challenges with innovation. Though feeling the pressure of these demographic and economic trends, the parochial school system here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore is trying not to lose sight of the church's mission in maintaining a presence in the city. As a result, the archdiocese has helped organize a number of initiatives to aid Catholic schools in the city's southeast area, as well as other challenged neighborhoods throughout the city.

"If we abandon the children in the city, I don't know what other hope they would have," says Cardinal William Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore. "What we're doing is to face it in a more methodical and regional way."

Teaming up with some of the city's biggest businesses and foundations, the church here recently announced its largest tuition-assistance program ever, aimed at boosting enrollment at 15 of the 40 archdiocesan schools in the city. The archdiocese also has helped the southeast schools through a continuing restructuring in the hope of sharing resources so that as many can be kept open as possible.

The restructuring represents a shift in thinking for the traditionally decentralized Catholic school community, which had always depended on the strength of its local parishes for stability. But the archdiocese and its schools have recognized the need to change with the times.

"If we abandon the children in the city, I don't know what other hope they would have,"

Cardinal William Keeler,
the archbishop of Baltimore

"The idea of the parochial parish school is gone," says Christopher Russo, the principal of Our Lady of Pompei High School, which occupies the second floor of Ms. Rebbert's building. "I'm more surprised when I hear a kid is a member of our parish than when he isn't."

As a city that figures so prominently in the first chapters of American Catholic education, Baltimore feels well-suited to help write the next.

Catholic Church officials here are fond of touting the city's many firsts: seat of the first diocese in the United States, founded in 1789; home to Elizabeth Ann Seton, the country's first native-born canonized saint, who established a Catholic elementary school in Baltimore in 1809; site of one of the first Catholic schools for African-Americans; and producer of many of the city's favorite sons. Babe Ruth, Mr. Russo points out, graduated from Baltimore's St. Mary's Industrial School.

As the country's first diocese, Baltimore also hosted numerous councils of bishops. It was in the bishop's residence off Cathedral Street that such a meeting in 1829 recommended that American parishes begin founding Catholic schools and use parish funds to pay their staffs. And in 1884, the U.S. bishops urged all of the country's Catholic parents to seek a parochial education for their children, thus avoiding the public schools where students were forced to read from the King James version of the Bible.

From early on, the many devoutly Catholic residents of southeast Baltimore heeded the call.

Surrounding the 155-acre Patterson Park, southeast Baltimore long drew its stability from two sources: the many Catholic churches--along with some Protestant ones--that served the varied immigrant groups from Europe and their descendants, and the shipyards that spawned a dozen different industries providing thousands of blue-collar jobs.

"People thought to some extent these neighborhoods would be here forever," says David Casey, of the Jubilee Baltimore Center, a nonprofit group promoting the revitalization of the city's southeast region.

But the neighborhood suffered a series of blows in the 1970s and 1980s as many of the traditional employers, including Bethlehem Steel and General Motors Corp., downsized by the hundreds.

"This whole area in the early 1990s, when you looked at the statistics, it really looked very scary," says Sister Barbara Ann English. Sister English runs a nonprofit group called the Julie Community Center, which offers social services ranging from emergency aid for the homeless to after-school programs for teenagers.

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