While parents in the Diocese of Rochester continue to struggle with the closing of additional diocesan schools, the investment in Catholic education continues to be a worthwhile one, local and national experts say.
Catholic schools consistently have higher test scores for children in the same populations served by poor-performing urban public schools and provide a positive, close-knit environment, said Evelyn Kirst, director of the Warner School’s Leadership Program for Catholic and Private Schools at the University of Rochester.
“The mix of social classes is healthier,” she said. “Parents are looking for a good curriculum, caring faculty and exposure of kids coming from different economic backgrounds. That’s a real strength for families looking for globalization, even though it’s on a Catholic basis.”
For Catholic schools located in urban settings, Kirst added, the percentage of non-Catholics adds to the schools’ diversity. Nationally, the percentage of non-Catholics attending Catholic schools has grown from 2.7 percent in 1970 to 13.8 percent, according to data from the 2007 annual report by the National Catholic Educational Association.
A higher degree of parent involvement is another factor that attracts families, Kirst said. Sister Margaret Mancuso, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Diocese of Rochester, agreed, noting that parent involvement is a key component of Catholic education.
“We see parents as the primary educators of their children,” Sister Mancuso added. “Catholic schools help and support them in that. We partner with parents as the primary religious educators as well.”
By placing such academic disciplines as social studies in a spiritual context and adding lessons on such church teachings as social justice, the education students receive at Catholic schools also will help them become contributing members of a global society, Sister Mancuso noted.
Programs such as Notre Dame University’s Alliance for Catholic Education — which seeks to recruit and train Catholic-school teachers — may help reverse current regional trends of school closings, noted Kirst and John Staud, one of the alliance’s directors.
“There’s a strength (in such programs),” Kirst said, “especially in the larger schools where the buildings are old and the parishes can’t afford to keep them up. They need national support.”
School closings over the last few years in the Northeast and Midwest do have serious implications for the nation as well as the Catholic Church, said Staud, director of pastoral formation and administration for Notre Dame’s ACE program.
“In the inner cities, they provide educational opportunities that represent a profound effort by the church to bring justice to the poor,” Staud added. “For the church, (schools) are proven resources for forming committed Catholics who know their faith and wish to pass it on to the next generation. The parish school represents a tremendous form of social capital — in parishes with schools, the school is often the life of the parish.”
Despite current setbacks, Bishop Matthew H. Clark said that the Diocese of Rochester remains committed to the ideals of providing all children with a quality Catholic education.
“Circumstances and life’s flow have demanded some adjustments, but at its core I would like to keep that opportunity available, and especially, would I like to keep it available for those of few means, for whom Catholic-school education can be a major break in life.”
But also needed to reverse the trend of school closings, Kirst believes, is a reduction in tuition rates to ease the financial pinch for middle-class families.
“Addressing the middle class … there’s got to be a way to do this,” she said.