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.

She joined Mr. Casey and several other neighborhood leaders in launching an exhaustive study of southeast Baltimore, which revealed more sobering news. Between 1980 and 1990, she says, the area lost more than 45 percent of its industrial jobs. Many of the smaller businesses in the area's major commercial corridors had closed, and more than 10 percent of the 30,000 housing units were vacant.

A stark reminder of the changes that have taken place sits framed in the window of the computer lab on the second floor of Our Lady of Pompei. The massive red-brick Esskay meat-packing plant, which once guaranteed livelihoods to hundreds of southeast Baltimore residents with only a high school education or less, sits vacant, many of its windows broken.

But Mr. Russo tries to view the transitions as just that: a change to something different, rather than something worse.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, a steel mill has laid off a lot of people; the economy is going down the tubes,'" he says. "It's not true. The American economy has just become a lot more efficient, so you don't need 20 guys to file anymore, you just need one."

Recognizing that many of his graduates will work in a service industry rather than in manufacturing like their parents, Mr. Russo has tried to marry work skills with academics whenever he can. When his students read Moby Dick, for instance, they also write a r‚sum‚ for Captain Ahab. Knowing the premium that employers now place on teamwork, the principal also goes out of his way to make students who don't get along work together on school projects.

Although Catholic schools traditionally have been praised for strong academics, Mr. Russo thinks the time has come for those schools to think more about integrating work-skills training into their programs.

"I'm not saying everyone needs to be a philistine," he says. "But for a kid to go to school for four years and not know how to write a resume is a crime."

School Ties

The community leaders in southeast Baltimore have similarly tried to meet the economic transition with an optimistic plan for survival. After completing their study of the region's strengths and weaknesses, they assembled a community proposal with recommendations for everything from securing more loans to start small businesses to revitalizing the neighboring industrial park by attracting more high-tech companies.

Their hope, they say, is to regain some of the area's lost stability without pushing out the remaining long-term residents. Early on, they realized the leading role the neighborhoods' Catholic schools played in accomplishing that.

"People with choices are moving out to where they perceive the public schools are better," Mr. Casey says.

Community organizers saw that the fate of a neighborhood was tied closely to the fate of its parochial schools. Many who worked in the schools also realized that their closure would only add to the many challenges facing southeast Baltimore.

This relationship of mutual dependence has been recognized in other cities as well. A recently released study of three St. Louis Catholic schools suggests that the parochial schools indeed are a stabilizing force in urban neighborhoods.

"It's beyond a church interest," says Bishop John J. Leibrecht of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese in Missouri. Bishop Liebrecht also chairs the NCEA's board of directors. "The city is interested not only as a resource for parents but as a resource to their own property values and to keeping people in the city."

The study was commissioned by the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, a St. Louis nonprofit that primarily seeks business support for the city's Catholic schools and their students. Its findings showed that in the neighborhoods around the three schools studied, about 43 percent of families said their neighborhood Catholic school was a very important reason why they had moved there. Further, nearly 78 percent said that the school was a very important reason for them to stay.

In southeast Baltimore, Catholic school officials feel they have a similar effect.

"No one directly across the block from this school has kids in this school," says Katherine Davis, the principal at the Bishop John Neumann School, which formed in 1974 through the merger of Sacred Heart of Jesus with another local Catholic school. "And yet, I think we're a symbol of stability to them because they see us working with the kids."

Ms. Davis knows that some of the nearby row houses serve as drug houses. She sees the deals made outside them when she returns at night for school board meetings. She fears that if the school were not there, the drug dealing would increase and take place throughout the day, driving out more of the older residents.

"We're called to serve the cities," Ms. Davis says. "And I think right now the Catholic and private schools are offering a better education, and if we abandon the city, the city will decline."

Nonetheless, southeast Baltimore's Catholic schools faced the real threat of closure.

Enrollment at all of the schools has declined sharply in the past few years as some families moved to the suburbs and others found themselves unable to pay the more than $2,000 a year in tuition because of layoffs or other financial constraints.

Fresh from their work drawing up a holistic plan for the southeast region, however, several of the area's community leaders joined with some of the neighborhood's principals and archdiocesan officials in creating a plan for the parochial schools.

"We look at those Catholic schools and parishes, as well as the Protestant parishes, as anchors in our neighborhood," says Sister English, who also headed up the team that studied the area's Catholic schools. "We want to make sure there is a strong Catholic presence in this community. Otherwise, no one will move to it and stay in it when their kids get to be of school age."

Based on the recommendations, the archdiocese opted to close one school next fall: Holy Rosary, an elementary school where the enrollment was down to about 80 students in a school built for more than 500. The system's central office hopes to move a high school to the Holy Rosary building.

"You have the same kind of overhead whether you have 100 kids or 500 kids," says Donna Stadler, the principal at Holy Rosary. A member of the task force examining the southeast schools, Ms. Stadler found herself in the position of recommending herself out of her current post.

"We had to be able to divorce ourselves from any turf wars," she says. "We knew this was going to hurt, but we were doing it for the kids."

Ms. Stadler says she recognized early on that her building was better suited for a high school than an elementary school and that the area's only secondary parochial school had little room to grow.

Despite the one planned closure, many in the neighborhoods of southeast Baltimore consider themselves lucky.

"Under this study a lot of us didn't know if we would have jobs," Ms. Davis of Bishop Neumann says. "They did close one school. But how about if they had closed three? And they could have."

The archdiocese is now overseeing an effort to stabilize the financial position of the remaining schools while boosting their enrollments.

"We cannot in good conscience close the doors of these schools because that would be the worst possible consequence. It would indicate a retreat," says Bill Blaul, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "What we'd like to do is grow in the suburbs and maintain ourselves in the city."

To help the remaining five elementary schools, the archdiocese has offered to pay for a regional provost position to begin to implement their partial restructuring. The hope is to reduce operating costs by centralizing some financial responsibilities that traditionally each parish school has had to worry about itself, such as marketing and purchasing.

"In many ways, site-based management has been our own worst enemy," Mr. Blaul says. "You got to the point where site-based management was trying to swim upstream, and the current just got faster."

The archdiocese hopes to hire someone for the ad hoc provost position in a few weeks. Mr. Blaul expects the position to run for less than year, at which time the provost's responsibilities will transfer to a local board appointed by the archdiocese.

Although plans for the restructuring remain preliminary, archdiocesan officials and the principals say the hope is that the five schools can draw on each other's strengths to enhance their programs. Special education or foreign-language teachers, for example, could be shared among the schools.

The addition of day care to schools that don't now have it could also be a big draw to new parents, Mr. Blaul says.

"Right now we've been limited," Ms. Davis says. "We stay limited by staying with ourselves."

Along with centralizing many of the schools' financial responsibilities, the archdiocese is working to beef up their marketing. In recent weeks, the church's central office began investing in market research to find ways to bring in more parents.

"Historically, Catholic schools have always worked on the premise that they really didn't have to market," says Ronald J. Valenti, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "We just stood there, and people came to us."

The plan could lessen some of the waiting lists in the archdiocese's outlying areas by drawing parents who commute into the city for work. Mr. Blaul envisions using direct mailing and billboards near the highway exits near southeast Baltimore that might read, "A safe, affordable Catholic education is two blocks away."

These changes all represent a departure from the traditional management of Catholic schools, which depended only on their respective parishioners to provide students and financial support.

"The paradigm shift that I see happening is that the schools can no longer be owned just by the parish; they have to belong to the community," Ms. Stadler of Holy Rosary says. "Unless we can bring these neighborhoods together, we're just perpetuating the problem."

Just as southeast Baltimore's remaining residents have had to adjust to the economic transition affecting the area, the school principals and other officials in the archdiocese say they recognize they need new ways of doing business to maintain their presence in the city.

"It's always been their neighborhood school connected to their parish," said David Sunday, the president of Bishop Neumann's school board. "It's tough to give that up, but they're going to have to to survive."

Seeking Help

Even before southeast Baltimore's community leaders asked the archdiocese for help, the church office sought assistance from the city's business community to ensure that it didn't lose many of its urban schools to declining enrollment.

The result, announced last month, is the new Partners in Excellence program, through which several of Baltimore's largest companies and foundations have pledged nearly $4 million for tuition assistance at 15 of the archdiocese's urban schools.

The money will offset elementary school tuition by $1,000 a year and high school charges by $2,000. Average annual tuition at the 15 schools runs about $2,600, although it's higher at the high schools than at the elementary schools.

program had already helped place 125 students. Officials hope to raise the total pledges to $5.6 million by the end of the year, allowing as many as another 125 students to attend the parochial schools by the beginning of the 1997-98 school year.

In creating the program, Baltimore joined Catholic leaders in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland in seeking major support from the business community to help their urban parochial schools.

"It looked like many of these schools were within 10 students of being OK," said Raymond "Chip" Mason, the chief executive officer of Legg Mason Inc. "It wasn't for lack of demand. It was the $2,000 or more that people couldn't afford. We came to the conclusion that what we need to provide are enough scholarships so these schools would have enough kids to operate on their own."

Officials at the Archdiocese of Baltimore hope to keep the tuition-assistance program going with $1.5 million in annual giving after this year.

Three of the 15 schools targeted for Partners in Excellence tuition assistance are in southeast Baltimore: the K-8 St. Elizabeth School and the Our Lady of Pompei elementary and high schools.

"I think it's fantastic for the business community here to say, 'We're looking at a program that works,'" says Richard Gatto, the principal at St. Elizabeth. "They know about what works. In their businesses, if something doesn't work, they get rid of it."

Mr. Gatto's school also is the beneficiary of another local partnership among varied groups that recognized how closely the fate of a city's parochial schools and its neighborhoods were tied.

The notion of such mutually dependent fates led Ed Rutkowski, the project coordinator of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Initiative, to propose one of the more novel programs now working to revitalize the area and its Catholic schools.

The program offers full-tuition scholarships at St. Elizabeth School to families who buy a renovated row house from a community-development corporation started by the Patterson Park group. The two- and three-bedroom homes are priced between about $37,900 and $59,000.

Financed to the tune of $414,000 by the Abell Foundation, a local philanthropy, the program should be able to offer scholarships to about 20 home buyers a year, according to Mr. Rutkowski.

Since the program was announced, Mr. Rutkowski has received more than 130 inquiries."These are people who not in a million years would have thought of living in this neighborhood," he says. "I'm thinking that in a few years you could have 100 kids at this school just from that program."

Enrollment at St. Elizabeth is now 189, compared with about 460 when Mr. Gatto came to the school seven years ago. More than half of his students are non-Catholic. Investing so much effort in finding corporate and foundation support for schools that serve primarily non-Catholics might seem paradoxical for an archdiocese that now has long waiting lists of Catholic parents for schools in its outlying areas.

In Baltimore, the archdiocese reports waiting lists of about 3,000 parents. Nationwide, non-Catholic enrollment in Catholic schools has risen from about 10.6 percent in the 1983-84 school year to 13.2 percent, and the percentages are much higher in the nation's cities.

But the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Catholic leadership in the United States see such investments as serving their church's mission, rather than detracting from it.

"Most urban dioceses are eager to maintain their city schools, even though they're serving more non-Catholics," says Leonard DeFiore, the president of the NCEA. "It traces back to the historic mission of the church to give priority to the poor."

By maintaining a presence in the cities, the parochial schoolsthrough their religion classes, community service, and role models seek to spread the gospel where they see it needed most.

"If we pack up and leave," Mr. Gatto says, "just imagine the message that's sending out: If you can afford our schools, then we'll serve you. If not, then forget it."

Vol. 16, Issue 22, Page 19-22

Published in Print: February 26, 1997, as Without Abandonment
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