Parochial Schools: Out of Cities, Into the Suburbs

Many urban schools are closing in the face of rising costs and a poorer city population.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Earlier this month, Roman Catholic schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey faced an unfamiliar challenge: striking teachers. Lay teachers hoisted picket signs for the first time, pushing for wages matching those of their public-school counterparts.

In Milwaukee and Detroit, parochial schools confronted a more familiar problem - bracing for news of which schools would close this fall. The situation contrasted sharply with that of wealthy suburbs such as Potomac, Md., where parents camped out for two days to gain their child a spot at the newly renovated and expanding School of Our Lady of Mercy.

The nation's Catholic schools, long a beacon to the cities' poor and immigrant children, are going through seismic changes. As lay teachers around the country push for higher wages and middle-class families leave the cities, inner-city schools are struggling to maintain what is often considered a model for good discipline and a solid back-to-basics education. In the wealthy suburbs, meanwhile, parochial schools are overloaded with demand from families willing and able to pay full tuition.

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"Professionalization, or unionization, may create more gaps between the inner-city schools and the suburbs," says Peter Holland, superintendent of the Belmont, Mass., public schools, and a former Xavierian brother in Illinois and Missouri parochial schools. "The Catholic school may end up more like a private school - reserved for only the wealthy who can afford it."

A driving factor may be the shift in teaching staff. A generation ago, nuns and priests taught the classes and accepted low wages as part of their calling. Today, lay teachers make up 95 percent of parochial school staff, and many of them have families to support or retirement to consider.

Higher costs

Even teachers with experience average $8,000 less in salary than their beginning counterparts in the public schools. Many teachers are also reluctant to spend time in religious services if the school won't pay for it.

In St. Louis and many East Coast cities, lay teachers are organizing into unions and demanding contracts.

In Philadelphia and New Jersey, lay teachers walked out of their jobs for a week in the Philadelphia area after the archdiocese demanded the teachers attend the religious services and be willing to live up to a strict moral code. In New Jersey, the archdiocese brought in priests and nuns as replacement workers after the union made similar demands. In the end, both sides settled for less.

"The downside of keeping tuition low is the salaries are low," says Leonard DeFiori, president of the National Catholic Education Association in Washington. "As long as the tuitions are modest, the salaries have to stay modest."

In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities, archdioceses have merged and shut down scores of schools in the past few years. As recently as 1980, schools were a cash cow for city parishes. Most schools took in from tuition more than twice the amount needed for operations, according to one study. But by 1990, the schools cost more than entire parish revenue.

Many of the cities' rock-solid Catholic neighborhoods have gone through sweeping changes. Middle-class families moved out to the suburbs or out of state, leaving behind the very poor. Today, many inner-city Catholic schools have student bodies who aren't Catholic.

In Chicago, the Catholic school population has halved in the last 20 years, to 136,000 students. To cope, the archdiocese has closed 146 schools. In Baltimore, the archdiocese closed the 73-year-old Holy Rosary School this year. The school had only 80 students in a school built for 600.

Few of the students left in the cities are able to pay the tuition.

Typically it costs $2,500 to school a child in the Catholic schools, but city parents pay on average only about $900. Parishes usually run the schools themselves and pay the lion's share of the budget, but the archdiocese and other scholarships pitch in for those students who can't pay.

But at the same time the inner-city schools are emptying, parents in the suburbs, disillusioned with public education, are flocking to the Catholic schools. Since 1992, Catholic schools have grown by 79,000 students, with expansion occurring largely in the suburbs.

"Every time you turned around, they were trying something new in the public schools," says Elaine Clinton, a Glenmoore, Pa., mother who sends her four children to St. Patrick's School in Malvern. "In the Catholic schools, they stick to basics. The teachers can hug the kids without any trouble."

"I talk to my friends in the public schools and they're just learning things we had last year," says Amanda Clinton, who attends St. Patrick's.

The new enthusiasm, along with a new baby boom, means many suburban Catholic schools can't seat all the applicants.

Five years ago, St. Patrick's was on the verge of shutting down. Now parents like the Clintons have filled the school to overflowing.

Suburban waiting lists

In Arlington, Va., the waiting list for the elementary schools runs into the thousands. In the Minneapolis suburbs, the archdiocese is building a major building every year, and still can't keep up with the demand.

The growing enrollment may seem good, but the flood of students presents many problems.

At Our Lady of Mercy, the parish set up trailers to house the extra students until it built a $4 million addition this year. But the school is still overfilled.

"Parents complain about the class size, which is about 34," says Sister Virginia Pfan, the school principal. "We just don't have room for anyone else."

The schools' popularity doesn't always stem from good facilities. Few schools offer computers in the classroom and many work with vintage science equipment. Students still sit in silent rows, and the schools stress that education is a result of individual effort.

Strong performance

And the Catholic schools still surpass public schools in academics. Even in tough areas, schools typically send more than 85 percent of graduates on to college, according to a study by the Harvard University School of Education. Test scores are higher and violence is lower, says a 1990 Rand Corp. study.

"Poor and minority students do much better in Catholic schools than in public schools," says Janine Bempechat, a Harvard School of Education professor who has studied the Catholic schools. "Catholic schools are quite serious and loving. You don't get that a lot from the public schools."

But such opportunities are waning for the schools' traditional urban clientele.

According to several leading researchers, the only thing that can save the urban Catholic schools is vouchers, where the government helps pay tuition.

This week, Minnesota will begin offering tax breaks for private-school tuition. The Philadelphia archdiocese is lobbying for a voucher program that will give poor families nearly all they need to attend a parochial school. But most states are waiting for the US Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of vouchers and state aid to church programs.

"Our country needs to think about whether it is in the common good to let the Catholic schools go," says Mr. Holland. "In the inner city, Catholic schools are on their way to becoming an endangered species, and we need to decide whether that is a good thing."

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