Parochial Schools: Out of Cities, into the Suburbs Many Urban Schools Are Closing in the Face of Rising Costs and a Poorer City Population

By Tim Cornell, | The Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 1997 | Go to article overview

Parochial Schools: Out of Cities, into the Suburbs Many Urban Schools Are Closing in the Face of Rising Costs and a Poorer City Population


Tim Cornell,, The Christian Science Monitor


Earlier this month, Roman Catholic schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey faced an unfamiliar challenge: striking teachers. Lay teachers hoisted picket signs for the first time, pushing for wages matching those of their public-school counterparts.

In Milwaukee and Detroit, parochial schools confronted a more familiar problem - bracing for news of which schools would close this fall. The situation contrasted sharply with that of wealthy suburbs such as Potomac, Md., where parents camped out for two days to gain their child a spot at the newly renovated and expanding School of Our Lady of Mercy.

The nation's Catholic schools, long a beacon to the cities' poor and immigrant children, are going through seismic changes. As lay teachers around the country push for higher wages and middle-class families leave the cities, inner-city schools are struggling to maintain what is often considered a model for good discipline and a solid back-to-basics education. In the wealthy suburbs, meanwhile, parochial schools are overloaded with demand from families willing and able to pay full tuition. "Professionalization, or unionization, may create more gaps between the inner-city schools and the suburbs," says Peter Holland, superintendent of the Belmont, Mass., public schools, and a former Xavierian brother in Illinois and Missouri parochial schools. "The Catholic school may end up more like a private school - reserved for only the wealthy who can afford it." A driving factor may be the shift in teaching staff. A generation ago, nuns and priests taught the classes and accepted low wages as part of their calling. Today, lay teachers make up 95 percent of parochial school staff, and many of them have families to support or retirement to consider. Higher costs Even teachers with experience average $8,000 less in salary than their beginning counterparts in the public schools. Many teachers are also reluctant to spend time in religious services if the school won't pay for it. In St. Louis and many East Coast cities, lay teachers are organizing into unions and demanding contracts. In Philadelphia and New Jersey, lay teachers walked out of their jobs for a week in the Philadelphia area after the archdiocese demanded the teachers attend the religious services and be willing to live up to a strict moral code. In New Jersey, the archdiocese brought in priests and nuns as replacement workers after the union made similar demands. In the end, both sides settled for less. "The downside of keeping tuition low is the salaries are low," says Leonard DeFiori, president of the National Catholic Education Association in Washington. "As long as the tuitions are modest, the salaries have to stay modest." In Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities, archdioceses have merged and shut down scores of schools in the past few years. As recently as 1980, schools were a cash cow for city parishes. Most schools took in from tuition more than twice the amount needed for operations, according to one study. But by 1990, the schools cost more than entire parish revenue. Many of the cities' rock-solid Catholic neighborhoods have gone through sweeping changes. Middle-class families moved out to the suburbs or out of state, leaving behind the very poor. Today, many inner-city Catholic schools have student bodies who aren't Catholic. In Chicago, the Catholic school population has halved in the last 20 years, to 136,000 students. To cope, the archdiocese has closed 146 schools. In Baltimore, the archdiocese closed the 73-year-old Holy Rosary School this year. The school had only 80 students in a school built for 600. Few of the students left in the cities are able to pay the tuition. …

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