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Catholic High Schools In The 21st Century

June 15, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

(I am going to offer some observations about the state of American Catholic high schools based upon what I have seen in the part of Connecticut where I live. I am confident that the situation here is similar to that which obtains in most of the country. If not, I welcome readers’ reactions to provide balance. Fire away.)
My grandchildren attend the public high school in the Connecticut town where they live. But I get to hear parents of Catholic high school students talk about their experience quite a bit. Their sons are on my grandsons’ youth hockey teams and I occasionally shoot the breeze with some of them with our noses pushed up against the glass surrounding the ice. Now and then, their children’s schools come up in our conversations.
What strikes me is the tuition that these parents pay: Fairfield Prep, run by the Jesuits, is nearly $20,000 per year, Notre Dame West Haven, run by the Holy Cross Brothers, is close to $15,000. Notre Dame in Fairfield and St. Joseph’s in Trumbull cost about $14,000. It is hard to see how this state of affairs can continue.
Those prices make it a challenge for middle-class families, even upper-middle class families, especially those with more than one child of high school age, to send their children to these schools. I don’t think anyone wants Catholic high schools to become schools for only the very wealthy and a handful of minority students with financial aid or athletic scholarships, but that seems to be where we are heading.
I am not criticizing these schools. They are not in the same category as the colleges that have been raising their tuition far beyond the inflation rate. The high schools do not have overpaid teachers and administrators. Their buildings and grounds are no more plush than a typical suburban high school. They are doing what they need to do to survive.
But will these Catholic high schools be able to survive by continuing to raise their tuition? Or is their end in sight? The prestigious New England prep schools continue to thrive with even higher tuition costs. Perhaps schools like Fairfield Prep are in the same category, catering to wealthy Catholics.
But what about schools with a middle-class and upper-middle class clientele? Many of the parents of my grandchildren’s friends seem to be in those categories, yet they choose the public school system for their children. Why do they?
I haven’t taken a formal poll, but it seems clear to me. It is because they like their local public high school. The parents who send their children to Catholic high schools cannot say the same. In Connecticut, it is possible to earn an above average income and live in a very nice home, but in a neighborhood with dysfunctional and dangerous public high schools. Catholic high schools tend to draw their student bodies from families faced with that conundrum.
Stamford, where William F. Buckley’s home was located and the home of many Wall Street executives, is one example. New Haven, too, with old gingerbread houses that look as if they were lifted whole from a street scene in an “Andy Hardy” movie. Often, they are the homes of members of Yale’s faculty and administrators. These are highly desirable places to live, except for the public school system.
Great old homes — but served by an inner-city school system with all the problems associated with those systems. The professionals who live in these homes solve the problem by sending their children to private schools.
The Clintons and the Obamas made the same choice for their children; they did not send them to Washington, D.C.’s public schools.
If they are Catholics, they will choose from the available Catholic high schools. Non-Catholics have an array of private “day schools” to choose from, while others may use one of New England’s famous boarding schools.
Consider the implication: I submit that if these families lived in one of the more stable suburban areas of the state, many of them would be content with the local public school; Catholics, included. I repeat: Few of my grandkids’ neighborhood friends go to Catholic high schools, even those whose parents have considerable wealth, while parents with significantly less money who live a town or two away, make great sacrifices to send their children to a Catholic high school. The difference-maker is the quality of their public school systems.
It is hard not to conclude that Catholic high schools exist nowadays, in large measure, as a way to escape the crime, drugs, and lack of discipline found in the local public schools. That is their appeal, rather than their Catholic identity. I don’t think anyone familiar with Connecticut would argue that the Catholic parents in the suburbs of the state, who use their local public schools, are less committed to their Catholic beliefs than the Catholic parents in urban areas such as New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford, who send their children to Catholic high schools.
We face a new reality: It is near-to-impossible for modern Catholic high schools to compete with a well-run public high school in a stable neighborhood, whereas the Catholic high schools of old could compete. Those schools were different, staffed largely by members of religious orders; they provided the liturgy and in-depth instruction in the Catholic faith and a solid college prep curriculum, in a disciplined and orderly setting — and all at a very low cost.
Catholic parents of today face a calculus different from that of their predecessors in the 1950s and 1960s. The Catholic high schools available to them may be good in many ways, but not different enough to warrant their high tuition costs. The bottom line: If modern Catholic parents have a good public school available to them, most will choose it. Church leaders need to confront this reality.
What’s the answer? Often these things are solved “on the ground,” as parents make decisions about what is best for their families after they survey societal changes. That said, it strikes me that Catholic high schools cannot count forever on a clientele of parents who decide to stay in their homes in downtown areas in spite of the poor school systems, rather than move to the suburbs in search of good schools.
Then again, the millennials may change the above scenario. We see more and more of them opting to live in downtown areas, rather than search for the home with a lawn in the suburbs. If that pattern does not change when they become parents, the new normal may become what exists in urban areas such as Connecticut’s Stamford and New Haven: financially stable families with children living in areas serviced by substandard public school systems.
If that happens the demand for Catholic high schools may increase dramatically. Things could get interesting, especially if some form of voucher system is part of the story.

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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.

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