Although she’s a Baptist, Karen Santos decided to send her three children to Holy Family School — a Catholic School in Rochester.
Her 15-year-old son, Joshua, is a Holy Family graduate, and 9-year-old Bishop and 7-year-old Princess are enrolled in the school’s fourth and second grades, respectively.
“I like the values and structure that my children have learned,” Santos explained.
Bishop and Princess are far from the only non-Catholic students at Holy Family. In fact, 144 — or nearly three-quarters — of the school’s 200 students are not Catholics, said Mary Ellen Wagner, principal. In addition to Baptists such as Bishop and Princess, the student body includes Muslims, Lutherans, Buddhists and children who belong to various Protestant denominations.
This trend is fairly common among the six inner-city diocesan schools — collectively referred to as the WIN schools — that receive subsidies through the Wegman Inner City Voucher Program, said Patricia Jones, assistant diocesan superintendent for the WIN schools.
The WIN schools are Holy Family, Corpus Christi, St. Boniface, St. Andrew, St. Monica and Cathedral School at Holy Rosary. Non-Catholic students often account for 80 or 90 percent of these schools’ enrollments, Jones noted.
And statistics show this pattern is not confined to the City of Rochester. Forty-one of the 457 students enrolled at Brighton’s Seton Catholic School are not Catholic, said Sister Kay Lurz, principal. Linda Cvik, principal of St. Patrick School in Owego, said non-Catholic students account for between 10 and 15 percent of her school’s 112 students. Twenty-seven of the 219 students at St. Mary School in Canandaigua are not Catholic, said Ann Marie Deutsch, principal.
The rise in non-Catholics attending Catholic schools likewise can be seen at the national level. During the 2004-05 school year, non-Catholic students accounted for 12.2 percent of the total enrollment at Catholic elementary schools in the United States, according to statistics reported by the National Catholic Educational Association. Of the 2,420,590 students currently enrolled in the nation’s Catholic elementary and secondary schools, nearly 14 percent are not Catholic, up from 11.2 percent in 1980 and just 2.7 percent in 1970, according to the NCEA.
Why Catholic schools?
So why are more non-Catholic parents choosing to send their children to Catholic schools? For many, the answer lies in the way Catholic schools integrate values and morals into the rest of the curriculum.
“The parents are really looking for a values-based education, and that’s part and parcel of our schools, and that’s why they’re choosing them,” said Barbara Keebler, director of communications for the NCEA.
Catholic schools provide character education along with academic education, and that is precisely what many parents are looking for these days, Keebler noted. Amid much national debate about such issues as taking the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, many parents are searching for ways to cling to their values and impart them to their children.
“The public schools teach values too, but many of these people want their children to be able to talk about God or Christmas,” Jones said. “People are searching for something different for their children, and they’re becoming aware of opportunities.”
That’s what diocesan representatives learned last year after visiting the leaders of a number of area Christian congregations, she said. The clergy told diocesan officials that parents in their congregations were excited about the option of sending their children to schools where they are free to talk about their faith.
Many non-Catholic families in Canandaigua and other parts of the diocese seem to share those sentiments, Deutsch said.
“They’re looking for something different. They want the Christian values, Catholic values. They want a smaller setting for their children, more of a family atmosphere,” she said.
With an average class size of about 20 students, individual classes at Holy Family might not be much smaller than those at public schools, Wagner said. Yet the overall school community is much smaller and more tight-knit than that of most public schools, which may boast enrollments of 800 compared to Holy Family’s 200, she added.
Catholic-school students consistently achieve higher scores on statewide tests than do their public-school counterparts, perhaps because the Catholic-school environment is very conducive to learning, Jones suggested.
“We have a reputation of having safe and well-disciplined schools. Discipline is strong in our schools,” Jones said. “When you walk into a Catholic school, you walk into academic quiet and respect. Children stand up to greet you.”
That’s not to say that teachers and administrators are harsh disciplinarians, she noted. They have high expectations of their students, but they also have high levels of respect for their students, which in turn encourages their students to respect them.
“They can only learn (respect) if you give it,” Jones said.
Winifred O’Neil, a member of the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester, sent her daughter to Holy Family partly because of the school’s structured, respectful environment.
“The children are expected to be disciplined, respectful and accountable, which are the same expectations I have for my daughter,” said O’Neil, whose daughter, Grace Kendall O’Neil, is in third grade.
Members of the general public often mistakenly think Catholic schools are for Catholic students only, or that staff members at these schools will try to convert all non-Catholic students, Jones said.
“We aren’t converting or proselytizing. We accept and celebrate who they are,” Jones said. “Our ability to embrace one another is who we are.”
Students occasionally do convert to Catholicism after attending Catholic schools, but those instances are rare, she added.
Many Catholic-school teachers integrate the faith traditions of their non-Catholic students into the curriculum, teaching about the historical background or cultural significance of these religions, Wagner said. Being a part of a diverse student population seems to help children understand the importance of respecting each other’s differences, she said.
“We teach the Catholic faith, but we are also mindful and respectful of the different religions,” Wagner said.
Although they may discuss other religions, teachers do not provide religious instruction in them, Jones said. Regardless of their faith backgrounds all Catholic-school students learn about the Catholic faith and participate in all student liturgies.
“They get all the religious instruction and Catholic doctrine that the other students have,” Cvik noted.
When Catholic students go forward to receive Communion, non-Catholic students either remain in the pews or go forward with their arms crossed over their chests to receive blessings from the priest, Jones said.
Non-Catholic parents don’t usually object to their children participating in Masses and learning about the Catholic faith, probably because they understand from the beginning that those things will be expected, said Sister Lurz, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“This is our reason for existence. There have been no objections from parents at all,” she said.
Non-Catholic students at Seton don’t seem to feel out of place, perhaps because Seton is a melting pot of Catholic students as well as non-Catholic students, she noted. Seton draws students from 31 Catholic parishes, so few of the students see each other in church every weekend. Many students, especially those in younger grades, probably don’t even know which classmates are Catholic and which are not.
Sixth-grader Natalia Prescod comes from a family of Methodists and Baptists, but said she feels right at home at Holy Family.
“I feel welcomed here. The teachers treat the kids with respect, and the kids treat each other with respect. I think all people should accept people of different religions,” Natalia said.