Suppose your son is a sixth grader and his male teacher just married another man.  If it happens at a Catholic school, the teacher would be fired as it has happened at schools in Ohio and California. If it is at a public school, it is likely a non-issue to administrators.

In the latter case, you could tell your son that marriage is only for a man and a woman and that sex is a gift from God for married couples.  You could give this same explanation when contraception and abortion are introduced as moral-free options for sex outside of marriage.  Then after the lesson, you would pack your child off to school and place him under the authority of teachers that contradict your beliefs.

Who is teaching our children?  Parents have the serious obligation to be their primary educators.  Yet, no one can deny that schools have a huge impact on the values of the upcoming generation.  Are the schools of today nurturing the next generation of Catholics or impeding them?

Catholic parents have an obligation to hand down the faith to their children.  With the culture at odds with such teaching, the job has become increasingly difficult, particularly if the school day is not spent in a Catholic environment. There are two issues at play in Catholic education today. One is the dedication of Catholic parents to give their children a Catholic education. The second issue is the availability of that education.

Many dedicated parents, unable to send their children to Catholic school, have chosen homeschooling. This is only one factor that has fueled the growing Catholic homeschooling movement. But homeschooling is not for everyone.  Ideally, every Catholic parent should want their children to be taught Catholic values and then to have the ability to provide them with with a Catholic education.

New Models

Catholic schools once flourished in this country when it was widely expected that Catholic children should receive a Catholic education.  Yet, despite a growing Catholic population (from 45 million in 1965 to almost 77 million today), Catholic school enrollment has plummeted, from 5.2 million students in nearly 13,000 schools in 1960 to 2.5 million in 9,000 schools in 1990.

In 2013, the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) reported that about 2 million children attend Catholic schools in the U.S. The biggest loss is occurring in northeastern and Great Lakes cities while in the South there is growth, where Church membership is increasing and voucher systems help with tuition in some states. In spite of the drop in enrollment nationally, 32 percent of Catholic schools have to turn students away for lack of space.

According to Dr. Rick Kruska, Superintendent of Light of Christ Catholic school system in Bismarck, ND, the old model does not work anymore where once there were fifty students in a classroom and nuns provided cheap labor. He stated that Catholic schools need to get creative to make education affordable for families while still paying a living wage to teachers. “No child should ever be told that their kids cannot have a Catholic education regardless of financial abilities and learning abilities,” he said. Kruska acknowledged that this is not always the case, but it is the goal he is working towards.

Light of Christ school system combines three elementary, one junior high, and one high school into one system. The junior high was newly created for the 2013-14 school year to make room at the elementary schools where students were regularly being turned away. Enrollment in the Bismarck Catholic schools increased by 125 students this year.

Cost is usually another issue for parents. The average tuition for high school is $8,500, while at Saint Mary’s Central High school in Bismarck, it is $3,950. At the three grade schools, the cost is $2,550 but the national average is $5,800. Kruska attributes financial contributions from five parishes with keeping tuition down but says they are also looking into new ways to help finance schools such as endowments.

A total of $175,000 was given out in financial aid to help families afford the tuition, but Kruska added that parents sometimes must be willing to make sacrifices for an education that is worth it.  He pointed to the dedication of teachers who usually make less than public school teachers yet turn out students that achieve above the national average.

“But the biggest part is the faith component,” he said. “Students are learning Catholic values.”

According to Dr. John Staud, Senior Director for Pastoral Formation and Administration of Notre Dame University’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), research shows that the value of Catholic education goes beyond the students. “They are good for communities, families, and the Church,” he said. “For instance, when we did research in the Latino community, two-thirds of Latino bishops in the U.S. had gone to Catholic schools.”  The bad news, according to him, is that currently, only 3% of Latino children are in Catholic Schools.

“Our poor communities benefit from Catholic education but education is expensive so this is an issue we have before us,” he said.  Staud explained that the ACE program prepares teachers and principals to work specifically in Catholic schools and also collaborates with schools to provide them with teachers and assist with management models.

A dramatic example of a turnaround that ACE assisted on is St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Tucson, AZ. It was recently featured in the National Catholic Register where it was reported that the school had fewer than 130 students and was threatened with closing four years ago.  This year, there is a 91% increase in enrollment with 250 new students. Test scores also improved dramatically. Third graders were at 17th percentile in math four years ago, about 33 percentage points below the national average. Last year, the third graders math scores jumped two percentage points above the national average at the 52nd percentile.

With the help of the ACE program, St. John the Evangelist was revitalized.  The same teachers were in place but changes were made in the school’s management structures and philosophy.  A tax scholarship-credit program also helped more families afford tuition in this predominantly Hispanic community.

Many Catholic schools across the country are similarly finding creative ways to survive and thrive.  Our Sunday Visitor cited a number of examples where Catholics schools slated to be closed, kept their doors open through faith, determination, and new ways to operate. Perhaps it is a matter of: If there’s a will, (and a prayer) there’s a way.

Staud described the lack of access of the poor for a Catholic education as a civil rights issue and stated that finances of a family should not prevent them from taking part in a Catholic education. “It seems unacceptable that wealthy people have parental choice and poor people don’t,” he said.  “It’s a lie that we all have equal rights if kids are stuck in poor schools and can’t afford private school tuition.” Staud contended that we lose generation after generation of human beings that are not living up to their potential because they have not been giving the opportunity.

Teachers can get their master’s degree through ACE by taking summer courses and teaching in disadvantaged schools in an inner city or Indian reservation for two years.  They experience poverty up close.  “Service to the body of Christ through others is a big aspect of their experience,” Staud explained.

Alec Torigian, Assistant Director for ACE, taught middle school math, science, and religion in a small, inner-city all-black Catholic school in Mobile, AL.  “Families go there to avoid a public school system that sees frightening statistics about numbers of arrests, poor daily attendance, and shockingly low graduation rates,” he said.  Torigian cited the Catholic school advantages:  high academic expectations, safety, personal concern from teachers, and the gift of being immersed in a faith-driven atmosphere.

He shared the example of an eighth grader he taught.

“He came to us new as a 7th grader the year before, and grew by leaps and bounds.  He is very bright, athletic, and well liked, but he often referenced his brother who was in jail. It became clear in talking to his parents that they desperately hoped he would live out his great potential and stay far away from the trouble his brother got into.  At Easter during his first year, he entered the Catholic Church.  This was a beautiful thing to say the least.  

“Then, midway through his 8th grade year, his mother let us know that she would be transferring him to public school because of financial difficulties.  Our administration immediately offered financial assistance, but she was too proud to accept.  

“A few days later, she came back to the school with tears in her eyes.  She explained the disorder she saw just in the office of his new school and the lack of respect in the students roaming around.  She couldn't bring herself to leave him there for the school day.  She went back to one of the nuns at our school and accepted financial assistance. Her son was back the next day.  As the nun hugged and kissed him, he was embarrassed...but beaming!  He finished out the year strong and is now beginning his freshman year at a wonderful and challenging Catholic high school.  His return was worth more than any number of SMART boards we could have bought.”  

Parents’ Role

Since the advent of the Pill in 1962, family size grew smaller. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae promulgated on July 25, 1968, warned that contraception would lead to a world like the one we have today, but many ignored it.  Thus, not only do many Catholics also have less children to fill schools, but with it comes a strain of thinking among some that Catholics need not follow all of Catholic teaching.  With such a mindset, not everyone values a Catholic education or is alarmed by anti-Catholic indoctrination at their children’s schools.

For those who value following Church teaching, Catholic schools offer a haven where prayer is not a subversive activity and Jesus Christ is still our Lord and Savior. Rather than being forced to defend the Catholic faith against a hostile world, at a Catholic school, it is handed down and celebrated.  And in some cases, which I have seen myself, it is the children through the influence of their Catholic education that leads parents deeper into their faith.

For some families, there are no Catholic schools available. In such cases, homeschooling can be considered, but again, it is not going to be for everyone.

If the only option is a public school, then parents need to do their best to teach the truth and help their children understand the contradictions they experience at school.  They should also look for opportunities to instill the faith beyond their home such as Catholic youth groups or after-school student groups.

Catholic education is everyone’s business; even those who do not have children.  Everyone should pray for Catholic schools and look for opportunities to support them. They nurture our future generation who are growing up in a world hostile to the very values needed most today.

Copyright 2014 Patti Maguire Armstrong