What should a Catholic school be like? How does the average Catholic school live up to that ideal? Can a school like that survive in today's world? If not, what compromises are acceptable, and which are not?
Ideally, in my opinion, Catholic schools would be much like one I attended for a short time in the late 1960's. It was a parish school, totally supported by parishioner contributions, and it made room for all parish children (even if they had to put 40 students in a class, which they did). It did not have non-parish kids because it was the only Catholic parish in town, and why would Protestants want to send their kids to a Catholic school? We went to mass daily, confession monthly, opened and closed the day with prayers, said grace at lunchtime and took religion daily. Now, I realize that that school was non-ideal in it's own way. I'm sure the teachers were even more underpaid than Catholic school teachers are today. My class (and I'm sure others) had over 40 kids--and I can't imagine there being a lot of individual attention for kids with learning problems in an environment like that. Parents could opt the kids out of mass attendance by sending them to school later than mass began, and that daily mass was not aimed at kids at all, so by the time they reached the junior high years, most kids had figured out how to ditch mass and did.
Today the average cost per student in a Catholic school in our archdiocese is about $5,000. The average tuition is about $4,000, with the difference being made up with parish subsidies, donations, grants and fund raising. Still, for many young families, $4,000 is a lot of money. The official Church teachings may encourage big families but tuition bills surely do not (and high school tuition is double that for elementary school). In our area, families who can afford to avoid the public school system generally do. Because Catholic schools, expensive as they are, are often lower priced than other private schools, and because our area is culturally Catholic, our Catholic schools are filled with kids who are not parishioners and who do not regularly attend Mass on Sunday. While I am sure different schools have different demographics, in our parish school only about 25% of the kids are registered parishioners (though the vast majority are at least nominally Catholics and most live in the neighborhood). I think more people think of Catholic schools as private schools rather than community schools.
One big selling point of Catholic schools is that they maintain standards--academic standards and behavioral standards. While kids may graduate from public schools as functional illiterates, 90+ percent of graduates of local Catholic high schools go to college. While kids may get away with XYZ in the public schools, Catholic schools don't tolerate it. Parents love this. Who wants their third grader in a classroom with a bunch of illiterate ten year olds? Who wants their first grader's vocabulary of four-letter words to increase due to what they hear from classmates? Who wants their 13 year old boy sitting in class next to a girl whose breasts are hanging out of her low-cut, tight shirt? Who wants to have to worry about physical altercations in the classroom or on the playground, much less fist fights turning into knife fights or gunfights? Who wants the class disrupted by vocal tics from a child with Tourette's syndrome? Who would choose to have their child's class disrupted daily by a frustrated child who was significantly behind the rest of the class and chose to play class clown rather than class dummy? Who wants their sixteen year old daughter sitting next to a pregnant classmate? As parents we want what is best for our children and none of those situations are ideal for our kids; but what about when our kid IS the situation? Where do kids who don't meet the standards fit in the world of Catholic education? Is, or should it be any different, from where these kids fit in the world of private schools as a whole?
Catholic high schools around here are strictly college preparatory--four years of science, English, math, history and religion. Two years of foreign language, two years of PE, a year of fine arts and a computer class are also generally required. While some high schools are more selective than others, there are graduates of Catholic elementary schools who cannot find slots in convenient high schools because the schools know the kids can't handle the academics. The less-selective schools lose many of their lower-standing students to public schools before graduation. Are we "upholding high standards" if we simply fail out or counsel out those who fail to meet the standard?
I have a daughter who is about to graduate from a public magnet high school that maintains very high academic and behavioral standards. It has been a good school for her and she'll head off to college next year with between 15 and 30 hours of college credit. She has spent the last seven years surrounded by smart kids whose parents value education. While some of her friends' parents have made choices in their personal lives which are incompatible with Catholicism, in general the kids she is in school with have been raised to act in much the same way she has. As my daughter's mother, I'm glad this school was an option. It saved me a ton of money over Catholic schools, provided her with a peer group similar to or better than she'd find in a Catholic school and gave her a top-notch education. However, as someone interested in the overall improvement of our local public schools, I'm not sure it is a good idea. Yes, it is helping the overall test scores for our district, which gives those in charge something to brag about. Yes, it does draw a lot of kids who would otherwise be in private schools. Yes, it does provide a superior education to a few kids too poor to attend private schools--but socio-economically the magnet schools serve a much higher population than the regular public schools. On the other hand, it pulls some of the top students and teachers out of the neighborhood high schools, taking away role models and reducing demand for high-level classes.
I have an autistic son who failed to meet the academic and behavior standards of a Catholic high school. They upheld the standards, not the kid and we went to the public high school where the standards may not have been as high, but where kids mattered.
My youngest is in our parish school. Tonight I heard a fellow mom bemoaning the behavior of one of her child's classmates who was academically behind and a behavioral problem. She made it sound like if that child remained in the class, she would have to consider moving her child. I don't blame her for being upset. She is paying substantial tuition and her child is being exposed to language she'd rather the child not learn, the teacher is having to devote inordinate attention to that one child, and her child is seeing examples of other inappropriate behaviors. But what about the kid who is causing the problem? Should that child be expelled? That would solve the mom's problem, but what about the troubled kid? Jesus dealt with people where they were and encouraged them to improve; he didn't just accept the perfect, or even the "normal". One of my daughter's friends switched schools this year because her mom was unhappy with the way the school dealt with a student who was picking on my daughter's friend, but the child doing the picking was going through a lot at home and I'm sure that child's parents were happy that the school was working with them. I know how much I always appreciated those who understood my son and cut us some slack where necessary, but I also know it was very tempting to wish that the Catholic high school kids who were teasing him would be expelled.
I know our Catholic schools are walking a tightrope. I know that even the most idealistic principal has to pay the bills. When a school is filled with kids who meet their Sunday Mass obligation on Friday morning (yep, when the confirmation kids were told to sign in at Sunday Mass, the DRE got a couple of calls from parents who explained that the kids met their Mass obligation at the school Mass during the week) too much religion could cause parents to look at other schools. When avoiding "those kids" is a major reason parents cough up substantial tuition payments, then having one or more of "them" in your child's class makes you look elsewhere. Are Catholic schools more Catholic--more filled with kids whose parents practice Catholicism, more universal in their outlook toward kids who have problems, more a part of parish life in areas where the public schools are considered good and generally utilized by the middle and/or upper classes?
Yea, I know it seems like I've got a lot of conflicting beliefs. Looking at it idealistically, I wonder whether we should have magnet schools; looking at it as the mother of a gifted daughter, I'm glad we got the opportunity to use that school. As the mother of an autistic son, I know he has caused more than his fair share of trouble for the schools he has attended. I also know that the problems he caused were not caused deliberately with the intention of causing problems. I know I was less than happy with the way the Catholic high school treated him and me. Idealistically, I think schools should deal with the students they are dealt. Realistically, I don't like it when my kids are picked on any more than anyone else does. While I may idealistically wonder whether Catholic schools should exist or if their existence, at least in my community, does as much harm as good; as a mom trying to pick the best school for my daughter, I chose a Catholic school where, perfectly or imperfectly, she'd learn about the faith I am trying to teach her. What's the answer? Is it ok to think that society in general should make a certain decision, while making a different decision for myself?