WHEATON – Rhonda Leonard doesn’t want to send her three children to public schools.
She became disillusioned with them while her oldest daughter, Janae, was at an Army base school. The child became withdrawn and her grades dropped, Leonard says.
But Janae, now 7, quickly caught up with her peers after Leonard enrolled her in St. Catherine Laboure, a Catholic school here. Leonard, who says she has no religious affiliation, recently enrolled her other children in St. Catherine’s. And although it’s a struggle to pay tuition, she says, she won’t reconsider public education.
More Maryland parents see Catholic schools as alternatives to a public system they perceive as violent and overcrowded and to other, more expensive, private schools.
Reversing a 20-year enrollment decline, Catholic schools statewide are filling to capacity in the 1990s. Many have long waiting lists.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which includes the Baltimore area, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, has seen enrollment jump by 800 students this year to 33,821 – 3,000 more than in 1990-’91, the low point. Another 2,400 students are on waiting lists.
Dr. Ronald Valenti, schools superintendent for the Baltimore Archdiocese, attributes enrollment increases to parents seeking the best academic education, plus the Catholic systems’ emphasis on morals.
“We educate the whole child,” Valenti says. “We offer spiritual development as well as psychological, social and academic development.”
The Archdiocese of Washington, encompassing Southern Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has seen similar increases – from 29,781 students in 1993-’94 to 31,385 this year. The system hit its low point of 28,651 in 1991-’92.
Within Montgomery County, Catholic elementary schools showed an 11 percent increase, from 7,050 pupils in 1993-’94 to 7,930 this year. St. Catherine’s enrollment went from 452 to 500 in the same period.
For some parents, Catholic education is a family tradition. But others say inadequate public school facilities influenced their choice.
“We’re afraid of public schools,” says Lynn Griffin, a Catholic school alumna who is considering several area schools for her four children. “The public school they would attend has a 35-to-1 student-teacher ratio. You can’t control a classroom with that many children.”
Classes at St. Catherine’s average about 25 students. Moreover, some St. Catherine’s teachers have aides.
Mary Simone placed her 7-year-old and pre-schooler in St. Catherine’s because she liked the religious aspect and stricter discipline, although corporal punishment is banned.
Millicent George, a Lutheran, sends her 6-year-old granddaughter to St. Catherine’s to “keep God as a focal point in her life.”
“The education is excellent,” George says. “That 6-year-old child can read – just listening to her makes me feel good.”
Catholic schools use different methods of evaluating students than public schools, making direct comparisons of academic performance difficult.
But officials point to the Catholic systems’ higher attendance rates and lower drop-out rates — the latter less than 1 percent compared to 5.4 percent in public schools statewide. About 93 percent of area Catholic high school graduates go to college, compared to 79 percent of public school graduates, according to the Maryland Department of Education.
Catholic schools also demand that parents get involved. St. Catherine’s, for instance, requires parents to volunteer 36 hours of service each year.
Diversity – religious and cultural – is also increasing. At St. Catherine’s, 52 flags hang in the hallways, representing students’ native countries. There are classes in English as a second language.
Some schools in inner cities are almost entirely non- Catholic. John Paul Regional in Baltimore has a 49 percent non- Catholic enrollment.
“We hold that up as a source of pride,” says Bill Blaul, public information officer for the Baltimore Archdiocese.
And although all students are required to attend religious activities, Catholic schools don’t seek to convert non-Catholic students, says Lawrence Callahan, superintendent for the Washington Archdiocese.
“Whatever faith they practice, we hope we make them spiritually stronger,” he says.
With more students, Catholic systems are building again. Last year, Mary of Nazareth elementary school in Darnesville became the first new school to open in the Washington Archdiocese since 1964.
The Baltimore Archdiocese plans new facilities in Harford, Frederick and Anne Arundel counties in the next few years. But officials are cautious, recalling past lessons: The church financed millions for new schools for baby boomers in the 1960s, only to see fewer students in the 1970s.
Unlike public schools in declining neighborhoods, Blaul notes, “If enrollment drops, we don’t have money to fall back on.”
With that in mind, even schools with waiting lists advertise. “Whenever there’s an empty desk, there’s a need to market,” Blaul says.
Tuition at elementary schools in the Baltimore Archdiocese ranges from $2,200 to $2,500 per year; at secondary schools, the average is $4,500 yearly. Washington’s elementary average is about $1,900, and annual high school tuition ranges from $3,600 to $10,900.
Callahan says the Washington Archdiocese hopes to increase promotions and tuition assistance to attract more families.
“We really feel strong about the future of Catholic education,” he says. -30-