Sunday, September 28, 2003

New leader talks about future of Catholic schools

The Catholic School system of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is the largest district in this area, with more than 53,000 students in 19 counties, and it has a new superintendent, Brother Joseph Kamis. He discussed the challenges of his new job with the Enquirer editorial board in a recent interview.

Here are excerpts.

Q. Give us a snapshot of current enrollment and costs.

A. This year's enrollment is down about 2 percent from last year and another 2 percent from the year before. This is pretty much standard for the "Big 12" Catholic districts nationwide (Cincinnati is the 9th largest in the country). One reason is population shifts. If you look at Cincinnati, the movement is toward Mason, out that way. Our schools out there are packed, while our elementary schools in the inner city can use more students.

Charter schools also have taken some students from us. But tuition costs remain a real challenge as we try to up salaries for teachers and principals to make them somewhat competitive with public schools. We also have parents, especially those in that second ring of schools right after the inner city before the suburbs, leaving because of costs. (Average elementary tuition is about $3,000 to $4,000 and high school usually $6,000 to $8,000).

Q. How has the child sex abuse scandals involving priests affected Catholic schools?

A. We certainly do some things differently because of it. From what I can gather, school funding has not been affected. We just met again with principals to talk about the Creed on Child Protection (which started in 1993, was revised twice) and was just reaffirmed in our schools. We also work with The Council on Child Abuse (independent, secular group), which has come into our schools the past three years. We found them to be very effective in educating teachers and students on what to look for and how to report concerns.If you look through the reports on child sexual abuse, especially with regard to priests or religious, you won't find too many new ones in the '90s. They're mostly from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, which is bad enough. But I think the efforts made since 1993 by the (U.S.) bishops have put a big dent in that and I think these efforts will continue into the far future. The credibility of the Church and our schools is based on that.

Q. You say your suburban schools are packed. Will you build new schools there?

A. We'd like to, but we would need (financial) support from people and the parishes they would serve. It's a major, expensive commitment for a new parish to build a school these days.

Still, movement to the suburbs is happening fast. Unlike some other large cities such as Detroit, in Cincinnati we've kept our schools in the inner city open, thanks to help from the CISE (Catholic Inner-City Schools Education Fund).

We're still there because it's part of our mission as the Catholic Church to assist the poor. It presents a unique challenge because, a high percentage of (tuition-aided) students in some of those inner-city schools are not Catholic and the "middle ring" of parents just outside the city, but not in the suburbs, are saying, "What about us? We've been supporting Catholic schools all of our lives and now we can't afford to go and you're helping non-Catholics over us?''

Q. What are the greatest differences in education at Catholic schools vs. public ones?

A. Religion is the big difference. Because of the community that it forms around the parish, especially in elementary schools, that faith and belief really determine what goes on inside the school building. Teachers would not be there just for the money. They see it as ministry, to share their faith with the students they serve. This sounds like cliche, but it's true. Our teachers are trained to bring that faith (application) into the classroom. Some people who have taught in public schools (for higher salaries) and retire, come back and teach in Catholic schools. They say they find it much easier discipline-wise because of the (religious) environment.

Q. What about those who say Catholic schools have veered too far from true Catholic theology?

A. That's a carry-over from society. If you look at any faith, you'll get your liberals, conservatives and the middle. But since Vatican II, teaching has changed dramatically, with more basis on Scripture, which was also a Protestant thing, not Catholic. Yet the Bible, the Gospels are the basis for why we exist. So, yes, we've moved more toward thinking and not just memorizing the answers, more toward "how do you apply this to life."

Q. Tell us about your teachers.

A. Most teachers are Catholic, but some aren't. When I grew up in Cleveland, more than half my classes were taught by religious. Since the 1960s, the numbers have obviously dropped. We now have many lay teachers. Vatican II has pointed to the age of the laity and the Church is trying to understand that message. Part of it is how do we imbue schools like Moeller or Purcell High Schools with the Marianist tradition (in which they're founded), without the (Marianist) priests or brothers there. Jesuits are discussing the same for Xavier High School. So we're looking not at the manpower, but at the mission and goals of the institution and to train our boards into the chrism of Marianists or Jesuits or whatever.

Q. Are you lobbying for more voucher programs in Ohio?

A. The voucher issue for me is choice for parents. They're the prime and first educator of the child. Yes, we'll lobby and fight for them because it costs a lot to educate children and although Catholic parents are willing to pay some extra on their own, it's getting to the point that tuition is almost beyond them. We're not asking them (public) to foot the whole bill - I don't believe that would be fair - but to help give our teachers and principals competitive salaries and students good textbooks.

When it comes to public money, Ohio has been very good to Catholic schools the past few years. Do we need more? Yes, but I realize we're blessed compared to some other states.

Q. Why do you think that's so?

A. I think the state legislature sees the need and good in Catholic schools, not only to Ohio students, but to the neighborhoods, especially in the inner city. In Cincinnati, those Catholic city schools provide a beacon, not because they're Catholic schools, but because they're institutions of learning in the neighborhood. The fact that Catholic schools have service programs also affects a neighborhood when they leave. Legislators also realize that Catholic schools save state taxpayers lots of money.

Q. How do teachers' salaries compare to public schools?

A. Ours are much lower. Our average beginning salary is about $23,000 a year; public schools' are closer to $30,000, plus a big jump when you get a master's degree. Some of our teachers cry; they say they have to go to public schools because they can earn $10,000 more a year. This is a huge challenge for Catholic schools.

Q. What can you do about it?

A. The ideal in my mind is that the support will have to come from the Catholic community. On average income of followers, the Catholic faith is now probably one of the richest faiths in America. I would dare say it's due to part to the good nuns, priests and brothers who taught them for years for nothing. When they went to grade school years ago, there was no tuition. The parish took care of it.

So how do we sell Catholic education to our own people and say it's our responsibility to educate our youth? Perhaps through a tithing system or something similar that says even though you don't have students in school, it's your role as a Catholic to educate others coming up.

Q. How closely do Cincinnati Catholic schools work with those in Kentucky's Covington Diocese?

A. The National Catholic Educational Association annually brings together teachers, principals and administrators.

We have the same major issues. I don't think there's a rich Catholic diocese in U.S. in regards to education. We're all struggling with population shifts, funding inner-city schools and getting and keeping good teachers and principals.

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