Why Do At-Risk Students Thrive in Catholic Schools?

By Shokraii, Nina H. | USA TODAY, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Why Do At-Risk Students Thrive in Catholic Schools?


Shokraii, Nina H., USA TODAY


Strong institutional leadership, shared values among the staff about school goals, a safe and orderly environment, and high expectations for students regardless of back ground provide a climate for learning and much-needed discipline.

It is said that economic empowerment today is linked inextricably to education. This means that Congress has the opportunity to give tens of thousands of America's most disadvantaged children a much brighter future. Attention from across the political and social spectrum is shifting to the astonishing success of inner-city Catholic schools in working with the very kids the public schools have abandoned as uneducable. An abundance of research comparing public. private, and religious schools shows that Catholic schools improve not only test scores and graduation rates for these youngsters, but their future economic prospects -- and at a substantially lower cost.

In a study published in 1990, for instance, the Rand Corporation analyzed big-city high schools to determine how education for low-income minority youth could be improved. It looked at 13 public, private, and Catholic high schools in New York City that attracted minority and disadvantaged youth. Of the Catholic school students, 75-90% were black or Hispanic. The study found that:

* The Catholic high schools graduated 95% of their students each year, while the public schools graduated slightly more than 50% of their senior class.

* Over 66% of the Catholic school graduates received the New York State Regents diploma to signify completion of an academically demanding college preparatory curriculum, compared to five percent of the public school students.

* 85% of the Catholic high school students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), compared with 33% of the public high school students.

* The Catholic school students achieved an average combined SAT score of 803, while the public school students' average combined SAT score was 642.

* 60% of the Catholic school black students scored above the national average for black students on the SAT, and more than 70% of public school black students scored below the same national average.

More recent studies confirm these observations. As parents, politicians, and concerned observers become aware of the benefits of Catholic schooling, particularly for the poor, the rhetoric demanding action builds. Syndicated columnist William Raspberry, a self-described "reluctant convert to school choice." wrote in 1997 that "It seems as obvious for poor children as for rich ones that one-size-fits-all education doesn't make sense." Furthermore, according to a 1997 survey conducted by Terry Moe, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and John Chubb, founding partner and curriculum director for the Edison Project. 83% of public school parents and 82% of poor inner-city, parents want parochial schools to be included in the choice of institutions to which they can send their children. Lawmakers and educators should use the mounting research comparing the performance of students in private and religious schools with their public school counterparts to promote change in the U.S. educational system.

Not only do Catholic schools offer a safe and cooperative learning environment, they do so at a more reasonable and much lower cost than the public schools. For example:

Holy Angels Elementary School, a 110-year-old institution, is located in the Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood of southside Chicago, where three out of four people live in poverty and violent crime is the rule rather than the exception. Yet, Holy Angels has managed to become one of the strongest academic institutions in the country. According to a 1994 report published by the Chicago Public Schools, four times as many Holy Angels eighth-graders scored above the national average in math on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills than those attending the area's three public schools. …

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