Monday, May 22, 2006

Who's Next?

Mrs. Alice Ortega, long time English teacher
at Montgomery Catholic High 

The history of the Catholic church in the United States is largely one of transition from the poor, immigrant church of the ghetto to a church of the suburbs. Most American Catholics need only look back a generation or two to mark the approximate point their families became "middle class." Chances are they owe it to a Sister Agnes or a Sister Mary Alice, for the institution most responsible for that transition is the Catholic school, and the people most responsible are the nuns. Their insistence on hard work, their uncompromising faith in God, their belief that all students could succeed, and their personal financial sacrifices spoke eloquently of the church's broader mission to serve the poor within the United States.

But the mission of the sisters was never primarily economic. If that were all there was to it, many could argue "mission accomplished." First and foremost, the mission was to mediate Catholic culture to students.

Given that aim, the need for Catholic schools is more acute now than ever. We live in a society that trivializes our faith by privatizing it and, worse, is openly hostile to religious claims. We are too busy to recognize that our Catholicism no longer defines us, that our values, spending habits, language, and attitudes are indistinguishable from anyone else's. It is not our faith but our social class that shapes us.

We need Catholic schools as an antidote to our religious amnesia. We need them to remind us about the beauty of God in "dappled things"--namely, our students: rich-poor, black-white-red-yellow-brown, smart and learning-disabled. We need schools to train our children in the practices of the church - its songs, its liturgy, its prayers, its customs - and to prompt them to be open to grace. We need Catholic schools because we and our children need to be called to serve others.

The nuns, of course, are largely gone. In 1873, the Sisters of Loretto founded the Catholic high school in Montgomery, Alabama, where I am now principal. One hundred twenty-four years later, in 1997, the last of these sisters left the school. She had been a chemistry teacher for thirty-five years; before that she taught first, second, and third grade in combined classes of forty-five. I presume she is trying to get some rest at the Loretto motherhouse in Kentucky, though I doubt that this remarkable woman is handling retirement gracefully.

Heroic teachers have "minded the gap" in the interim at our school. Alice Ortega is still teaching English after thirty years, making a pittance of what she'd be making in private industry for a woman of her talents. Joe Arban has been teaching History for over thirty years, serving stints as athletic director and head basketball coach along the way. Bernie Frye has been an institution at our school as our math instructor, also for more than thirty years. But their tenure is coming to a close. 

We in Montgomery, as in many other Catholic communities across the nation, find ourselves at the crossroad: Who will continue the historic mission of the sisters? The pressure is on. The cost of a Catholic education has risen dramatically in order to pay salaries for lay faculty (still, the average Catholic school teacher earns from $5,000 to $8,000 a year less than a public school teacher). High school tuitions in diocesan Catholic high schools are between $3,000 and $5,000 a year. Middle- to lower-middle-class families, particularly those with more than one child, can barely afford to send their children to Catholic schools any longer.

It is distressing the number of affluent younger Catholics - themselves living testimonials to the success of Catholic schools - who are opting out of Catholic schools and placing their children in private schools. They have the economic means to help Catholic schools the most. But for many of them, social pressures to be in the "right" circles, or the expectation that Catholic schools should have all the accouterments of a wealthy suburban or private school (state-of-the-art athletic programs, finely manicured campuses, the newest technology) pull them away.

Our decisions reveal our priorities. A woman of considerable means recently told me that her child was not in our school because we "didn't have a comparable fine arts program" to the elite private school she chose. She would have been forced, had she chosen us, to "seek out private lessons at some expense and inconvenience to her family." But was the cost of these lessons less than the tuition difference between our school and the elite private school she chose? Was she equally "inconvenienced" by taking her daughter to another place for her religious education? And did those classes do a better job than the Catholic school? Is it more important to have her daughter receive art lessons at school or to grow up within a Catholic community where the practices and values of the church are regarded as "normal" by the students?

Of course we should have good fine arts programs in our schools. I don't want families to be forced to choose between the arts and religious education! But we may not be able to offer comprehensive fine arts programs comparable to elite private schools if that means we become too expensive for middle-class Catholics. We can't become a private school with a Catholic label. Here, I believe, affluent Catholics have a special responsibility, for with their assistance, Catholic schools can provide a quality education for all children, even as we keep Catholic education affordable for others.

For those of us who work in the schools, the tradition of excellence in teaching and character formation - which is the sisters' legacy - is both daunting and encouraging. It is daunting because people have come to expect much from Catholic schools. It's encouraging because we realize the potential transforming effects Catholic schools can have on both students and families. Most of our families are proof of this fact.

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