Schools for all and all for schools

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By Carol Schuck Scheiber 

It takes the whole church to educate our children, argues this mother. And as a part of that church, we have the responsibility to chip in and ensure that all young people have access to strong Catholic high schools, regardless of family income.

 

This past fall I found myself planting a yard sign in front of a modest house in Toledo, Ohio. I thought about the high school girl the sign was celebrating. "Home of a new NDA Eagle!" it announced.

By the look of her house, this girl was from a poor family. What a distance this teenager would be traversing every day. I don't just mean the six miles across town. Girls from far-flung suburbs travel even farther. It's the emotional and cultural distance that strikes me as hard. What is it like to leave central city culture for the school's predominantly suburban culture? If you're a low-income scholarship kid, do you have to put on one persona for school and another for home? What's it like to be in school with girls who vacation in Europe while your family worries about the rent?

I don't know the answer to those questions, but they bring up a more pressing question for the larger Catholic community: Is this the way it's supposed to be? Are Catholic high schools supposed to be finishing schools for the affluent, with a light sprinkling of middle- and lower-class kids thrown in for good measure? With tuition at a national average of $7,000 in Catholic high schools, we are quickly pricing out families of modest means, not to mention the truly poor who stand to gain the most from our high schools.

According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), unofficial estimates of the family incomes of Catholic high school students during the 2006-2007 school year showed that about half the students came from households well above the national median household income of $48,200. I don't think U.S. Catholic high schools intentionally exclude poor or middle-income families. Scholarships often exist, but many families never even seek them because they see Catholic high schools as completely out of reach-something for affluent families.

Sister Mary Frances Taymans, S.N.D., executive director of the NCEA Secondary Schools Department, says that tuition has been rising faster than the cost of living lately. If parents want to send their child to college, how can they afford an expensive high school?

Yet Catholic secondary education has clearly established itself as a stepping-stone to college success, and in the United States today, college success is economic success. It is an established fact that Catholic schools have successfully lifted poor people out of poverty. Many of our college prep high schools see 99 percent of their students go on to college. The rising affluence of U.S. Catholics has been well documented by sociologists, and many observers connect that affluence at least partially to Catholic schools.

In spite of this proud track record, our high schools are rapidly becoming places restricted to those with plenty of pocket change. Economic forces have put our schools under great pressure to raise tuition. The staff and teachers at our Catholic high schools deserve to be paid well-much more, in fact, than they typically are. It is costly to pay faculty and staff well. The days of nearly free labor from religious orders are long over.

During his April 2008 visit to Washington, Pope Benedict XVI praised the U.S. Catholic education system. He encouraged us to make our Catholic schools accessible to all by opening our wallets and getting creative in how we finance schools. "It provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation."

I'm with the pope. It seems to me that the only way forward, the only way to keep our Catholic high schools from turning into elitist institutions, will need to involve the whole community. The larger Catholic community must invest in our Catholic high schools. The larger secular community-foundations and philanthropists who support the outstanding moral and academic success of Catholic high schools-should also invest in our schools.

A number of schools are becoming more creative in how they finance their operations, and they are models for what needs to take place nationwide if we want to make Catholic high school again available to a broad cross-section. There are the diocesan-supported schools in Wichita, Kansas; the corporately financed Cristo Rey Network; and many other examples.

With our increasing money and clout, we Catholics who have "made it" need to dedicate ourselves to keeping the doors of our high schools open to all. In every city and town, new students should be coming from every neighborhood, not just the prestigious ones. But that can only happen if we consciously-as an entire community-choose to make it so.

We have to embrace the mission of Catholic education: to educate the whole person, the mind, body, and soul. We need to want our teenagers-not just the teens in our immediate families but all the teenagers in our cities and towns-to absorb Catholic theology, social teaching, and liturgy alongside academics. If we desire these things deeply, we'll be willing to pay for them and to work for them.

If we undertake major initiatives so that our Catholic high schools open up to people of every social class, in many cities we will find that racial and economic issues will come to the forefront. If poor, middle-class, and affluent families are drawn together under the umbrella of their local Catholic high schools, we have the opportunity to listen and learn from each other.

My children have attended schools where they were the lone white faces in class. I know that it is uncomfortable for white people to mingle with those who look and speak differently. I know that in some cities, as demographics have shifted and neighborhood Catholic schools became poorer, browner, and increasingly non-Catholic, many white Catholic families have bailed. They won't send their kids to schools that are "too black" or "too brown" or "too poor." These racial and economic dynamics are difficult but worth engaging in. Our schools provide an ideal foundation from which to address racial reconciliation and economic justice.

I'm hopeful that the common purpose of gospel values and excellent academic standards can draw together diverse groups of parents. I have seen it happen in my children's schools. No matter our race or economic status, parents want good, holistic, and morally and educationally sound schools for their kids.

I urge the bishops of the United States to respond to the pope's call for educational access with vigorous leadership. Bishops can take the lead in bringing together Catholic parents, Catholic donors, non-Catholic philanthropists, business and political leaders, and any others with a stake in strong schools. The whole community benefits when our Catholic high schools are strong, and the whole community needs to be part of the solution to rising costs.

If school presidents and high school boards make affordability a priority, then the energy needed for such a mission will follow. Alumni and families of graduates should give generously to their high schools since they have directly benefited from them. Furthermore, they should demand that the schools put a significant percentage of their donations into helping families of modest means afford Catholic high school. Affluent families (or several families together) could "adopt a student" for four years.

Donors of all types should be asked for support. Businesses, foundations, philanthropists, all Catholics in a school's locale, and people of goodwill who want to alleviate poverty should be asked to support projects specifically aimed at bringing in lower-income students and supporting those students as they progress through Catholic high school. Quality education and faith formation prevents poverty and creates positive social benefits throughout the lives of graduates. There are many possibilities once we make access a priority.

The doors of our Catholic high schools are starting to shut on low- and middle-income families. Let's not allow that to happen. And as we find creative ways to make our schools open to all, I'll gladly keep planting those yard signs.

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