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Catholic Schools Urged To Work For Social Justice

When Roman Catholic school administrators from around the country gathered here for their annual meeting last week, the first three hours alone offered a telling snapshot of the range of challenges confronting Catholic education. In back-to-back sessions, attendees reflected on ways to ensure that Catholic schools deliver the essential messages of the faith, then learned the how-to's of competing for federal grant money.

The agenda for the five-day meeting of the Chief Administrators of Catholic Education, an arm of the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association, hit all the big issues roiling the nation's 8,100 Catholic schools, from the spiritual to the political, as they ride the waves of change.

The 350 participants went from a briefing on the worsening teacher shortage to a seminar on how to imbed Catholic teachings in all aspects of their curricula. One day, they received a pep talk on how to combat opponents of private school vouchers; another, they contemplated ways to ensure the religious formation of Catholic students in schools where fewer and fewer students are Catholic.

In the keynote address for the Oct. 15-19 gathering, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., sounded a note that would echo through the rest of the conference: the need for Catholic schools to renew their commitment to teaching and working for social justice.

Archbishop McCarrick

In that light, he urged administrators to mobilize support for tuition vouchers, arguing that true social justice in education cannot be achieved until poor parents have the same educational opportunities for their children as do wealthier parents.

A later session showcased 15 programs that in various ways have incorporated social-justice teachings.

The Archdiocese of Newark, for instance, makes certain its school uniforms are not made in sweatshops or with child labor, and students there study the history of working conditions in the textile industry.

The Diocese of Wichita, Kan., rewrote its curriculum to highlight issues of justice, in one case launching students on an investigation of the working conditions of local church employees. (The students found they deserved more respect).

"We tried to imbed the principles of justice in all we do," diocesan Superintendent Bob Voboril said.

Catholic schools are in no way exempt from the teacher shortages that are making headlines nationwide.

At a briefing here, administrators learned just how bad the shortages are and how they might respond. In a recent survey of the nation's 193 dioceses, 94 percent of the 116 that responded reported a need for teachers. Some reported more than 100 openings.

Several experts who presented findings of recent research on Catholic teachers said low pay is clearly an issue that makes retaining teachers difficult. But the research also showed that many people became teachers at Catholic schools out of a desire to "share the faith."

That finding, the researchers agreed, should not be ignored in designing effective recruitment strategies.

"We need to accentuate the nonfinancial benefits of teaching in Catholic schools," said the Rev. Joseph M. O'Keefe, an associate professor at Boston College's school of education who conducted the survey of Catholic school staffing and hiring patterns for CACE. "It's about shared decisionmaking, mentoring. It's a vocation."

Sister Mary Peter Traviss, an associate professor in the University of San Francisco's school of education, said the survey found that the most effective recruitment strategies were those that used local, personal connections, such as notices in parish bulletins, word-of-mouth communication among alumni and parents, and appeals from the pulpit.

The most intense rhetoric—and some of the loudest applause—came in a session about voucher programs. Robert B. Aguirre, a San Antonio businessman whose Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation gives $500,000 a month in privately financed tuition vouchers to schoolchildren around the country, characterized the heated battle over vouchers as a fundamental civil rights issue of equal educational opportunity.

Calling public schools "the most enduring segregation mechanism in our history" for the way poor children are overrepresented in failing schools, he said the demand for vouchers far outstrips their availability. That imbalance, he argued, represents "an amazing national cry from parents for civil rights and social justice."

He urged the Catholic administrators to take a more visible role in fighting for vouchers. "Where is the Church on this issue?" he said. "Our silence is deafening."

—Catherine Gewertz

Vol. 20, Issue 8, Page 16

Published in Print: October 25, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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