Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Tensions between Catholic Identity and Academic Achievement at an Urban Catholic High School

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Tensions between Catholic Identity and Academic Achievement at an Urban Catholic High School

Article excerpt

How Catholic identity is viewed or conceptualized is highly variable and amorphous, often changing by person, context, and time period. One can look to recent debates over doctrinal elements of the Catholic Church and the role of women religious to see the varied and widespread way the Catholic faith is practiced and interpreted (Goodstein, 2012). Catholic hospitals and other social services as well as Catholic universities have long debated what it means to be Catholic (e.g., John Paul II, 1990). Indeed, Catholic identity within Catholic K-12 schools can also be elusive and merits further exploration.

The most recent document on Catholic schooling by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB, 2005) begins by stating, "All Catholics must join together in efforts to ensure that Catholic schools have administrators and teachers who are prepared to provide an exceptional educational experience for young people-one that is both truly Catholic and of the highest academic quality" (introduction, para. 1). In a pluralistic church with widely varying views and an array of religious practices, it is challenging to define what it means to be "truly Catholic." A further challenge includes empirically defining the "highest academic quality" in a competitive urban school marketplace. While historically Catholic schools have been acknowledged for their high academic quality, particularly for ethnic minority, immigrant, and urban youth, as well as for their spiritual and moral commitments (Bryk, Lee, and Holland, 1993; Louie and Holloway, 2009), the dearth of economic resources and changing urban demographics have threatened urban Catholic school sustainability as numerous schools have closed and others are fighting to remain afloat (O'Keefe and Scheopner, 2009). Public school choice options are also widening and competition across sectors in urban areas is becoming more acute (Ravitch, 2010). In order to maintain the viability of urban Catholic schools, the quest for a strong Catholic identity and evidence of high academic quality has become urgent.

Through a secondary analysis of a case study on successful school leadership at one urban Catholic school serving economically marginalized students, this study inquired into the lived experiences and understandings of Catholic identity from the perspectives of administrators, faculty, staff, and students. It seeks to unpack the varying ways participants discussed Catholic identity as implicit and explicit as well as how they understood Catholic identity to be both individual and collective. Ultimately, the analysis showed that tensions concerning the school's Catholic identity were sidelined in the pursuit of academic excellence as measured by standardized tests, benchmarks, and college acceptance rates. In conclusion, we argue that embracing and taking seriously, rather than avoiding, the tensions concerning Catholic identity and academic quality in a Catholic school might contribute to vital community dialogue which invigorates learning and consequent spiritual and academic growth.

Defining Catholic Identity

From Catholic Church documents to scholarly models, the "unique Catholic identity" (USCCB, 2005) of Catholic schools has been described in diverse ways. As Groome (1996) explains, "being Catholic can vary across many cultural expressions, theological positions, and with different degrees and styles of participation in the institutional expression of Catholicism" (p. 107). Still, there are many overlapping ways that Catholic identity is conceptualized, with most scholars generally citing one or more of the following components: holistic education, community, relationships, visuals/symbols, Gospel values, Catholic social teaching, and service. For example, Groome (1996) articulated an expansive vision of what Catholic education should aspire to through a "collage" of five distinguishing characteristics: anthropology, sacramentality, community, tradition, and rationality, with three "hinges"--personhood, justice, and Catholicity. …

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