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Blessed are they who go to Catholic schools: finances force schools to close down.

Finances force many schools to close down

CHICAGO - "Help our school," she pleaded. "Buy a candy bar."

In her white blouse and Black Watch skirt with white sox and neat shoes, she was cute as a bug's ear and as Catholic as the pope's beanie. No other faith is stronger than the one that puts its kids on street corners in a city with a high crime rate and nut level. Few other sights bring me back more to my Depression days at St. Alice's when we sold chances on turkeys bigger than our kitchen ovens in order to keep our school going.

The little girl was from a school I thought had closed. It is one of 309 surviving elementary schools in the Chicago archdiocese, a system that, including public schools, was once the third largest in the United States. More than 100 are located in economically depressed areas. At least that number are in serious financial trouble.

In 1965, there were 289,000 students in Chicago's Catholic elementary schools; by 1992-1993 it had dropped to 110,000 - a 62 percent decline. The 3- to 14-year-old population in the area has dropped by 9 percent, partly through mobility, perhaps partly due to birth control now practiced as much by Catholics as any other population.

Of all children baptized in Chicago, only 55 percent attend Catholic school or participate in a religious education program. Now there are 91,000 in elementary schools. The schools continue to merge or close. All the candy bars in the world can't seem to save them.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Academy has been on Chicago's north side since 1888, two years after the parish was founded and a year before the then town of Lake became part of Chicago. Above the lintels on the epistle and gospel sides of the school, carved stones read "Boys" and "Girls" - relics of the days when girls and boys were separated after primary grades.

East of the school is a handsome house of prayer, the former convent that was once home to upward of two dozen Sisters of Mercy, who taught in schools like Mount Carmel for stipends as low as $30 per month. As with most other schools, there are no sisters at Mount Carmel. But, according to the principal, Sue Jungers, there is no shortage of applicants for teaching positions. The school has an excellent reputation.

(Chicago pay scales are better than in most dioceses, but still well below their public school counterparts. Teachers start at $17,900 and can reach $27,650 after 26 years. Principals start at $30,550 and can reach $47,975. There are addons of upward of $2,000 for master's degrees and doctorates. One high-ranking school official observed wryly: "Look, this is Chicago," suggesting that additional under-the-desk monies were sometimes available.)

Mount Carmel reflects the many changes that have taken place in Catholic elementary education in the past 25 years as well as the long-standing emotional pegs that mark the school as traditionally Catholic. Although many of its students can still walk to their parish school, as many as half do not live in the parish. Automobile and bus tires have erased parish lines just as they have for parish weddings.

Mount Carmel's 290 students, a number of whom are not Catholics, view the place as a kind of magnet school, pulling them in because of its innovative curriculum, multicultural program, extended day and computer sophistication. Enrollment is only half what it used to be. Classes of 45-60 kids are simply not tolerated anymore by the school office or the parents.

The once heavily Irish-American school now educates kids who represent 44 languages spoken at home. It is also integrated at a higher level than many public schools in Chicago. As with all schools visited for this report, a still powerful attraction is the religious curriculum and the traditional discipline, reported by one African-American Catholic seventh-grader as "uniforms, no jewelry, no lipstick or nail polish, no gum, no betting, no fighting, no nothin'."

And for good measure, "Use drugs or smoke and you're history." He added, "If the public schools got better, I might go back. But this school opens on time and closes on time. It does what it says it's gonna do." He was referring to the annual chaos in the public schools with threats of strikes, budget crises, layoffs and closings.

Another boy, a Filipino-American, said the $93 per week his family paid at a for-profit private school didn't buy as much education as he was receiving at Mount Carmel. A tall, bright black girl - one of the 15 percent of non-Catholics in the school system - commutes over 30 miles to Mount Carmel. "There are better teachers here. They take time out to help you," she said. She plans to attend Catholic high school.

Unlike the teachers and principals in the system, who are now hobbled by political correctness, the students were not reluctant to discuss their differences with the local public schools. They were remarkably aware of their better reading scores, safer environment and close relationships with their teachers. As this story was being prepared, the president of the Chicago Public School Board had just enrolled her daughter in a Catholic school.

In every school visited, both principals and teachers seemed to know every student's name. They knew which students had siblings in the school and whose parents had gone there. When NCR asked a strikingly pretty eighth-grader how tall she was, the principal answered, "She's 5 foot 7 inches and wears a size 10 shoe." Religion isn't the only difference.

It was Teddy Bear Day at Mount Carmel. The 125 children in preschool through second grade had brought their teddy bears, which were being carried proudly, even to the bathroom. In class, the bears were being used to teach mathematical concepts, art and storytelling. (The latter is emphasized more than reading in these early grades. True, they can't read the old "Dick and Jane" books that had only about 180 words, but they could understand some 2,500 words before they tackle formal reading.)

The youngest children represented 45 percent of all the students in the school. NCR found that preschool equals daycare in most Catholic schools. Preschool and primary education could be the temporary salvation of the system. One Chicago area parish converted the vacant convent to a daycare/preschool center, and within six weeks had a waiting list. When parishes ask their community what their greatest need is, there's a good chance that they will answer "daycare/preschool."

Tuition at Mount Carmel is $1,700 per student; $2,500 for extended day. Working parents need daycare badly and are willing to pay, but an enormous number of building codes and professional regulations make start-ups for such projects difficult, especially in aging school buildings.

The archdiocese has opened only one new elementary school in 30 years. It started with preschool and now has 284 students from preschool to fourth grade. Located at Old St. Patrick's Parish in downtown Chicago, it asks $3,425 tuition for the basic school day; $500 additional for kids who arrive at 7 a.m., and upward of an additional $2,075 for those who remain until 5:30 p.m. There is no shortage of applications, even in a school that charges $6,000 for dawn-to-dusk care. For that kind of money, one would expect that the school would teach Japanese. It does.

The archdiocese, second largest in the country, is going broke. Last year, it granted $18 million in operating and capital grants to the parishes and schools. According to one source, "most of it was to shore up the schools." It has depleted its once-sacrosanct cemetery fund to meet expenses, a deed Irish mothers once confessed to priests when they invaded their man's burial fund to pay the pittance in tuition.

The Chicago church is taking steps now to avoid complete bankruptcy in four years. Chances are they will succeed but not without closing many more schools. "It's going to be hard," one principal observed. "This school is doing fine. But in my home parish - a biracial community with many non-Catholics in the school - we have more than 200 in the school and only 120 people coming to Mass on Sunday. It's a tough call."

St. Patrick's in Lemont, Ill., is nearly 40 miles from Mount Carmel Academy. St. Patrick's dates to 1840 when a log church was built to serve the needs of the Irish immigrant workers digging a waterway to link Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. (An early developer named N.J. Brown formed a Total Abstinence Society, paying his workers extra money for staying dry during the six years it took to dig the two-mile section through Lemont.)

The school opened in 1879, initially as a private academy, financially freestanding from the parish. Then called St. James Select School, it may be an old model of the drop-off or regional school that is emerging. Free-standing, tuition-driven parish schools are rare. Most get subsidies from the parish or the diocese. Most likely, the practice will have to be drastically reduced if the parishes are going to survive.

Lemont continues to grow as a bedroom suburb for Chicago. But it retains much of its rural atmosphere. Deer still can be seen trimming the grass at St. Patrick's cemetery.

The present school was built in 1962. Five years later, it merged with St. Alphonsus School, a few blocks away, where the children attend primary school before coming to St. Pat's for their last five years.

There are 240 students, 131 of them in the primary school. Years ago, it was decided that, since the parish rested on the borders of two dioceses, it would serve any Catholics who came, without relying on a surveyor's map. Thus, St. Patrick's represents a choice that parents now make regarding parish membership and schools and between public and Catholic schools.

The local public schools are good; the tax base insures a measure of quality. Lemont is a blue- and white-collar town where parents have to think about the tuition ($1,190, plus fundraising activities) and the property taxes they are paying to support the public schools.

NCR interviewed eight students under the maternal eye of Mrs. Dolores Kuhn, the principal. She administers the school from a glass-paneled office in the main corridor that contained colorful, individual banners bearing the name of each student.

St. Patrick's, which still has five Sinsinawa Dominican sisters on the staff, is a home. Perhaps half the children have brothers or sisters in the school, but families are clearly smaller than they were in 1965 when Chicago Catholics averaged four kids and one bathroom.

St. Patrick's reflected certain demographics of other schools visited, for example the children were largely from two-parent, intact, working families; they had been enrolled since at least first grade; they were practicing Catholics - at least to the extent their parents practiced.

Only one of the eight interviewed intended to go to a public high school. ("We just can't afford Catholic high school," he said.) The others would commute considerable distances to Catholic high schools. "The loyalty is very strong," a long-time secretary at another school said. "It will most likely last through this generation."

Lemont does not have a drug or gang problem. In the upper grades at the public school, a DARE program is in effect, but basically the town, filled with antique stores, resembles Meyberry, USA, although every school visited was locked - a sign of the times.

"We're a family," a remarkably articulate eighth-grader, Katie Notter, said. "We're small. We learn more. There's discipline here." Katie could have spoken for all the schools.

Not far away, St. Michael's in Orland Park has one of the largest parish elementary schools in the archdiocese. There are 790 kids, 106 in fourth grade alone. There is no preschool or daycare, but a local private center buses kids to and from the parish school while the two working-parent families struggle to support children in houses that are too expensive with two cars and rising taxes.

St. Michael's has 17,000 parishioners from 4,500 families. The parish is well-off financially and able to subsidize the $1,145 tuition. (It's $1,665 for non-parishioners, which doesn't seem to stop parents. There are 126 children from outside the parish. The difference suggests a subsidy of nearly $350,000 from the collections, a figure that could drop if "downtown" needs more taxes.)

The local public schools are good. Yet, a sizable core of parents still prefer to send their kids to St. Michael's and to Catholic high school. "This is the South Side," a school official said. "The people are parochial school-minded."

There is no waiting list at St. Michael's. It seems to operate on the old principle of always room for one more.

Founded in 1867 by a group of Luxembourg farmers, the parish has given some of its best ribs to form new parishes. The school had a single teacher and only 30 students as recently as 1920. By 1961, however, it enrolled 830 students under the tutelage of 11 sisters and 7 lay teachers.

The loss of the sisters and the requirement for additional staffing to meet state guidelines is another factor in the growing dilemma facing Catholic education. In an effort to be as "public as the publics" and as "Catholic as the Catholics," the schools have added enormously to their expenses. St Michael's now has 35 teachers, 10 teacher aides, two health aides and an administrative staff to educate 40 fewer children than it did 30 years ago. The only Dominican sister remains in the library.

Perhaps the system would have lived longer if it followed the example of the tradition-bound synagogue schools that still give their backing to state educational bureaucracies. It reminds one of the late University of Chicago's president, Robert Maynard Hutchins'observation: "The worst fault of the Catholic schools is that they imitate the worst faults of the public schools."

Nationwide statistics echo those of Chicago. In 1968, there were 10,757 elementary schools with a total enrollment of 4,165,504 students, an average of 387 children in each school. By 1993, there were 3,411 fewer schools. Enrollment had dropped to 2,007,299, a loss of more than 51 percent. Elementary Confraternity of Christian Doctrine enrollment dropped only 13 percent during that period - from 3,856,000 to 3,339,000.

It isn't that there are fewer Catholics. The number of RCs has increased by over 22 million in the 25-year period. The figures suggest that, nationally, only 25 percent of Catholic children are receiving some form of Catholic education.

The number of teaching priests, sisters, brothers and scholastics has dropped by more than 82 percent since 1968 - from 116,893 to 20,528. With smaller class sizes, more teachers are required to teach fewer kids. As a consequence, parishes established in the past 25 years are marked by the absence of a parish school.

The new model, at least in the suburbs, may be like that of Pax Christi Community in Eden Prairie, Minn. The dozen-year-old parish has over 3,100 families. One full-time and five part-time religious educators work with 350 trained volunteers to educate 1,100 students. There are no plans for a parish school.

"Today's teachers are in a war for children's spirits and souls," a California public school superintendent told Catholic educators during the 1993 gathering of educators at the National Catholic Education Association convention held in New Orleans back in April. The rhetoric echoed the sentiments of much earlier educators - good Knute Rockne stuff, but not too realistic.

Public schools and other institutions are not enemies. They, too, are struggling to stay solvent, drug-free, crime-free, not overcrowded and in reasonable health. Their aging boilers are breaking down, too.

Sr. Catherine T. McNamee, president of the NCEA, reported an increase of 17,000 in enrollment over the previous year and suggested that the drop has bottomed out, thanks to "a little Madison Avenue." But the reality seems to be that even numerically viable schools will close because of economic realities.

In Illinois, as in other states, there are isolated calls for a voucher system that would put chits valued at upward of $1,000 into the hands of parents who could "spend" them at schools of their choice. Opponents point to the constitutional wall of separation. They avoid pointing to the Catholic schools, where comparisons could be odious, suggesting instead that the vouchers will be used to fund schools for junior witches and for atheists.

Surprisingly, there is little call from the diocesan offices for the voucher system. One critic observes: "That's because the church doesn't want the money going directly to the parents. They want fiscal control. And they don't want the parents to pick the schools. With a thousand bucks, parents could shop around."

Queen of All Saints Basilica Scbool may be the stereotypical, idealized Catholic elementary school. Located in Chicago's 60646 area, a high-income zip code, it is peopled by second-generation Irish and affluent, hardworking newcomers, including Asians. Founded in 1929, it grew slowly when the Great Depression slowed the development of the area. Its legendary second pastor, Francis J. Dolan, used to hope aloud that the Sunday basket would reach $25 at a time when the parish debt was $88,000.

But Dolan could get money out of a stone. By 1940, the parish still had only 225 families, but 15 years later, the elementary school had 1,225 students. Today, there are 607 children in classes only half as large, a faculty of 27 with 15 additional staff. (Unbeknownst to his bishop, Dolan pushed some Vatican buttons and had the massive church declared a minor basilica in 1962.)

NCR talked to a group of remarkably articulate kids with names like Sasewich, Jan, Naughton, de los Trinos, McGrath, Blaskowski, Vassilopoulos and Kossakowski. They were all Roman Catholic; nearly half had siblings in the school; all stated that they would attend the school again and send their kids there. Only two had ambitions of a public high school and each of these had chosen an elite science and math magnet school. About half came from families of at least four kids.

"Queen's" is a well-maintained, busy school with departmentalized upper grades, special teachers in all grades and a remarkable art program that makes the school walls dance. Tuition is $1,675 ($2,500 for nonparishioners). The school is also planning an endowment fund of $2.5 million. The principal, Genee Lyons, is a former nun - a commonplace in Catholic schools. She is also a former public school principal who, after a year's sabbatical, "felt that her heart was in Catholic schools."

There is no honor roll at Queen's. It didn't bother the students nor seem to affect their high school entrance. The kids come from stable homes. Interestingly, the students faulted the school only on its efforts to get a computer program into the grades: "Hey, we can learn that ourselves in a couple of weeks. We need a better science room. Good teacher. Lousy facility."

Religion is a big factor at Queen's, as it is at all the other schools. But rote catechism is as unknown to these kids as a recipe for German sausage. They praised the school for its efforts at teaching justice and faulted their catechism-raised parents for their prejudice.

There are no black kids at Queen's because there are none in the parish. At least two kids expressed the hope that their high schools would be integrated. "Our parents are afraid that their home values would go down," one student said. "And that means that a black family's home would be toilet-papered on Halloween."

Queen's was already getting inquires from a cluster of seven parish schools that are facing a 1994 merger. Two of the seven are slated for closing and the remaining five will be combined into a regional school system. Students in grades K-5 would attend three schools; those in 6-8 would have a choice of one of two schools.

Enrollment in the seven schools has dropped by 27.5 percent in the last five years, while average tuition cost increased by 63 percent, not atypical in urban areas.

Although the archdiocese has insisted that consultation will be thorough, there is a pervasive feeling that the decision has already been made. Parish schools that are not involved are being urge - perhaps ordered - not to accept any children involved in the seven parishes for at least two years. "Without this," one close observer said, "the merger just won't work."

Office of Education research is thorough and thoughtful but it cannot ease the hurt caused at the parish level when such mergers occur. Parochial anger rises when church officials admit to spending $4 million in subsidies in 1992-93 on a seminary system that now produces only a handful of priests each year and another $2.8 million in 1993 alone on costs associated with clerical misconduct.

Chicago's archbishop, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, is criticized for closing schools in order to save parishes, but it is the parish school that appears to be causing the blood flow. Some 25 to 40 parishes are in particularly bad shape and another 100 are living out of their checkbooks. Final decisions, made by clergy, will give priority to sacramental needs and seminaries.

St. Ignatius is one of the seven schools involved in the merger. A Jesuit parish, founded in 1907 on land once part of Loyola University, it has become a neighborhood fixture. The grammar school opened in 1908. Today it has kids whose grandparents graduated from the school.

St. Ignatius is an integrated school of 238 children, 49 percent of whom are Caucasian. The remainder are black, Hispanic or Asian. There is a single tuition ($1,780) for all, although 38 percent are non-Catholics. There is also a preschool, with 36 children.

"We're not going to roll over and play dead," one parishioner said. Students think the merger would fragment families. "I've been here since kindergarten," one student said. "I could have bought a couple of dozen mountain bikes with the tuition money. But I can't get a good education from mountain bikes."

St. Ignatius has integrated parish and school perhaps better than other schools. On Sundays, the children bring up the gifts, take up the collection and serve Mass. An enormously talented second-grader named Tony walks the corridors with his drawing of his creation, "Heart Man." At an all-school assembly, he told students, "When bad people hurt good people, it shrinks their hearts." Every kid in the school knows Tony. It's hard to merge kids like Tony or symbols like Heart Man.

According to the principal, Nancy Kelly, a parish task force is studying the possibility of developing an independent Catholic school. The archdiocese has made it clear that any parish that decides to stay out would have to go its own way financially. Chicago has only five private elementary schools, three elite institutions conducted by the Religious of the Sacred Heart and two under the auspices of Opus Dei.

What are the implications? It's hard to be specific, but some strong impressions emerge:

* Catholic schools still capture the imagination of parents and students. Classroom for classroom, value for value, they remain better than their public counterparts, but the money to keep them going simply isn't there.

* Decisions are still made by ordained clergy and their interest in elementary schools is on the wane. A parish with a grammar school is no longer considered another "Bells of St. Mary's." It isn't that the clergy don't care. "I've got nine buildings to maintain," one said. "The issue in my parish isn't birth control or abortion. It's the boilers."

* There is a growing interest in adult education for Catholics who survive to that level. But money will continue to go in disproportionate amounts to clergy development and care. However, gradually the church will spend more money on adult catechesis.

* It is becoming a suburban church. Schools in megaparishes in the suburbs will survive into the next century. However, as workplaces move to suburbia, and Catholics move to exurbia, the number of schools will decline. Urban schools will slowly merge to death.

* Few new schools will be built in the future but thousand:a more will close as aging buildings, financial realities and a church that still has difficulty seeing parish life beyond the borders of its vanishing priest corps tries fruitlessly to stem the flow with old models.

* There are no bad guys in this story. There are some communications and authority problems. But complex realities beyond the control of bishops, pastors and parents will severely test sincere beliefs concerning the community of faith and the preferential options it must make in the next decade.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Education
Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 29, 1993
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