4/17/2014 11:35:00 AM Catholic, public schools both serve common good
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Ryan Hass, an O'Hara School kindergartner, smells a flower held by Madeline Brainerd who is portraying St. Clare in this 2011 photo. Catholic schools are good at carrying moral tradition, but public schools have a role, too, experts say.
This is part of a series on education. Future stories will examine the outlook for jobs in the Northwest for graduates and the balance of grades with the whole experience of school.
Catholic schools and public schools need not be adversaries, says a University of Portland education professor.
"They don't need to compete and say that one is better than the other," says Shirley Loesch, who teaches, supervises and arranges placements for student teachers at both kinds of schools. Loesch says both kinds of school serve an important purpose.
Loesch, a Catholic school principal for 25 years, lauds public schools for doing an "honorable job" of helping a diverse population, including many non-English speakers and children with special needs.
"They are mandated to do it but they also work real hard at meeting those needs," Loesch says. "There is a real dedication and commitment on the part of teachers." Catholic schools' charism is developing faith along with learning, Loesch says.
"The charge is to develop a Catholic knowledge and ethics and morals," she explains. "That is a huge difference."
Loesch says "there is no question" that Catholic schools have more success in carrying a full package of ethics and morals to students. That's part of a coherent Catholic approach that infuses faith and mission into every lesson.
But no one should see public schools as utterly morals-free zones. Though they are limited to secular expressions, teachers there work to develop ethics, Loesch says. While Catholic schools are strong in creating moral leaders, they tend to be weak in diversity, Loesch says. She cites exceptions like Holy Redeemer and Holy Cross in North Portland.
Julie Johnson, principal of Holy Cross, taught in the public St. Helens School District for nine years before making the switch. Trained as an attorney, she became a teacher to serve the wider community. Then she decide she wanted to serve the Church that had formed her. And she had always intended that her own children would attend Catholic school.
"We wanted faith integration in their academics," says Johnson, whose husband works in public education.
"There are really good teachers at public school, but you cannot incorporate faith into life lessons there," she says. "Public schools have kids do service, but they can't link it to the bigger ideas."
Johnson recalls Ash Wednesdays as a public school teacher, coming into the classroom with her forehead marked in ashes. Her third graders would be beside themselves with curiosity. Many children seemed hungry for something their parents were not offering. "There were these kids without an anchor and nowhere to go and that was sad," Johnson says.
All the same, she admired the good teachers and administrators in the public school, many of whom lived out the ideal of servant leadership. Johnson says faculty and staff performed well even with a daunting variety of behaviors and spotty family involvement.
In the U.S., there are about 50 million children enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools with a 15-1 student-teacher ratio. By contrast, Catholic school enrollment in the U.S. is just under 2 million with a 13-1 ratio.
Public schools spend an average of about $12,000 per pupil while Catholic elementary schools have a per-student cost of about $5,800 and Catholic high schools about $11,800.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did a study concluding that private school students tend to outperform public school students because the families have more resources, not because the educational institutions are better. Researchers at Notre Dame and Stanford have confirmed the findings.
But most families choose Catholic education for its link to the great ideas of faith, morals and social justice.
Shelly Baughman, who is not Catholic, moved her children from the public school in Mill City to St. Mary School in Stayton. She says families at the public school would come and go more, leading to a frequent feeling of change. Families invested enough to pay tuition tend to be more involved and stable, she deduces.
While the teachers are comparable, Baughman says, the technology and class sizes at St. Mary's are a big advantage. But most of all, says character formation at the Catholic school is much easier.
"The religion part is important," she says. "Everyone should be exposed to that."