Demetrius Washington had been drifting, pulling down C's and D's at Walton Middle School in Compton and starting to act up in class when one of his older sisters persuaded him to try Verbum Dei, a Catholic boys high school in South-Central Los Angeles.
Now in his third year at the school in one of the city's most troubled neighborhoods, Washington, 16, studies for hours each night to maintain a strong B average in his course load of Spanish, geometry, history, American literature, biology and religion. He is on the football and track teams and hopes to get into the Air Force Academy or another four-year college when he finishes high school next year. And his widowed mother, who spent hours volunteering in his public school classrooms in a vain effort to reverse her youngest child's slide there, is thrilled with his turnaround.
"What I love is the strictness and the caring. They make sure the kids get their lessons there, and they help them feel good about themselves," Dorothea Washington said.
Her son's experience mirrors a small but growing body of research that indicates that Catholic schools are succeeding with many of the youngsters who founder in their neighborhood public schools, particularly inner-city minority students.
But the evidence that Catholic schools might be onto something with their narrow, demanding curriculum and their caring attention to each child--usually delivered on a shoestring budget--has stirred controversy. Public school advocates say attempts to compare the two systems are flawed because Catholic schools are more likely to get motivated students with supportive, concerned parents, and they can exclude the most difficult children.
The controversy is heightened by the vigorous, nationwide marketing campaign launched by Catholic educators last year in hopes of turning around a steep enrollment decline and building support for proposals to give families tax dollars to spend on private school tuitions. They have seized on the research to tout their schools for doing a better job on everything from achievement test scores to dropout rates to college attendance.
President Bush accelerated the debate last spring by making "parental choice" a major element of his proposal for reforming American education. By giving families school tax dollars to send their children to the school of their choice--public or private--the mediocre schools would be forced to improve or risk losing students and money, choice advocates argue.
Opponents counter that such a system would drain short funds from the public schools, making them less able to help the students who remained. And they argue that differences in accomplishments of public and private schools can be traced mostly to the types of students they serve.
At least some Catholic educators are uncomfortable with the "them versus us" overtones.
"We're very proud of the job we do in our schools, and we want to let people know about that, but we dislike comparisons with the public schools," said Sister Barbara Neist, associate superintendent for secondary schools in the Los Angeles archdiocese. "We have a different mission and a different audience. We have the advantage of paying parents, a set of common values and faculties that see teaching not as a job but as a ministry."
The debate over Catholic schools--and whether their 2.5 million students in kindergarten through high school nationwide should receive public tax dollars for tuition--comes during a time of great change. Between 1965 and 1989, a period of strong growth for other private schools, enrollment skidded from 5.6 million, or 13.1% of America's schoolchildren, to 2.6 million, or 5.5%. Catholic schools account for roughly half of all private school enrollment.
At the same time, the number of priests, brothers and nuns who traditionally had staffed the classrooms was dwindling. The need to replace them with lay teachers was contributing to the rapidly rising cost of running the schools and leading to decisions to close some campuses and consolidate others. By the last school year, members of the clergy comprised only 13% of Catholic school faculties, and some schools are staffed entirely by lay men and women.
As Catholic families moved to the suburbs, the schools enrolled larger proportions of non-Catholic students; today they account for nearly 12% of students in Catholic schools nationwide, and they form a majority at some inner-city campuses. Minority enrollment also grew, rising from 10.8% of students in the 1970-71 school year to more than 23% in 1990-91.
In the Los Angeles archdiocese, which includes Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, almost 65% of the nearly 102,000 students are minorities--including 40% who are Latino, 12% who are Asian-American and 9% who are African-American. In the Orange County diocese, almost 40% of the 12,842 students are minorities, while in San Diego, they account for 44.4% of the 12,412 students. San Bernardino and Riverside counties together have a minority enrollment of 48.8% of the 8,242 students.
Although the Los Angeles' archdiocese system of Catholic schools is small compared to the 640,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, it is the fourth-largest Catholic system in the country--behind those in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. And it is the only one among the four biggest systems to have enjoyed relatively stable enrollments.
These urban schools with their empty seats and relatively low tuitions (averaging $1,000 for elementary schools and $2,500 for secondary) became alternatives for some inner-city families dissatisfied with their public schools. And aggressive fund-raising campaigns in most big cities are providing more scholarships--about 17% of students receive financial aid.
The changes have led church leaders to embrace a broader role for their schools, said Sister Catherine T. McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Assn.
"Catholic schools have the same purpose of promoting gospel values and providing a values-centered education, but that plays out differently in different places. In some inner-city areas (with large numbers of non-Catholic students), we still teach the faith but we have to be aware of the ecumenical dimensions and not proselytize."
Acknowledging that some parishioners and pastors believe that the schools should be limited to Catholics, Sister McNamee said church leaders view their role as a "service to the community, a mission of Christian love, especially in inner-city areas."
"Certainly the people who teach in those schools feel that is necessary, at least until the public schools improve."
Beginning with the work of University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman in the 1980s, several researchers have attempted to fathom the reasons for Catholic schools' success. They have cited the schools' tendency to offer the same relatively rigorous, narrow curriculum to all students rather than allowing less academically gifted students to get by with less challenging courses. They found them relatively free of costly and meddlesome central bureaucracies and detected well-defined goals and high expectations for students, strong attention to instilling values and discipline and high levels of parent involvement.
They also found what Coleman called "social capital," a sense of commitment and caring that keeps students from feeling unnoticed even in schools where class sizes approach 40.
"Catholic schools provide a strong sense of community. The teachers have more diffuse roles and tend to be more involved with their students," said University of Chicago education professor Anthony S. Bryk. He and Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan have written about their findings in a book to be published soon, "Renewing the Common Schools; Some Catholic School Lessons."
Bryk said the schools are not well-equipped to meet the needs of the very brightest students or those with severe emotional, learning or physical disabilities.
"They serve the unspecial. They do a good job with the middle 80% and they do it with relatively small resources," he said.
Donald A. Erickson, a UCLA education professor who has studied Catholic schools in various parts of the nation, said much of the research, while favorable, "understates the case" for Catholic schools' superior performance by trying to make allowances for the schools' selectivity.
"They are better schools partly because of who goes there, and parents are smart enough to know that. Some of the strongest qualities--the sense of caring, cohesion and consensus--are there precisely because of choice and because parents must make an investment and they want to be sure it pays off," Erickson said.
While some education reformers have looked to the Catholic schools for clues for improving student performance, others have admired their low cost. Nationally, Catholic schools budget an average of $1,476 per child, about a third of the roughly $5,000 spent per student in the public schools. Some savings stem from their much smaller central bureaucracies and fewer campus administrators, but part of the difference also can be attributed to lower teachers salaries, bigger class sizes and fewer course offerings and activities. Nor do Catholic schools provide the expensive special services needed by disabled children or those from especially troubled backgrounds, groups that public schools are required to accommodate.
But those costs are climbing as increasing numbers of Catholic schools are making efforts to raise salaries and improve curriculum and facilities. All Catholic schools in California are required to earn accreditation from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, an independent agency whose standards are important for college admission. And most dioceses in the state are requiring their teachers to hold state credentials.
Except for the smaller bureaucracies, the differences rarely are mentioned in marketing campaigns or in the major lobbying effort-- launched by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in the fall of 1990--to win government aid for families who send their children to religious schools.
The lobbying effort includes a national office to help push Congress and state legislatures to allow parents to take tax dollars to spend on tuitions. California bishops have not taken a position on a drive to get a parental choice initiative on the state ballot.
Using federal government data, Catholic leaders highlight their students' higher achievement test scores in reading, math and science, their lower high school dropout rates (3% compared to 14% of public school students), and their greater tendency to go to college (83% compared to 52%). Additionally--and perhaps to some parents, at least as important--Catholic high school seniors have stronger pro-marriage views, greater community involvement and greater concern for others.
Verbum Dei, sitting along Central Avenue not far from the Watts Towers and the Nickerson Gardens public housing project, is in many ways typical of an inner-city Catholic school. About 55% of the 258 students follow other faiths. All its students are minorities--71% are African-American and 28% are Latino. There is one Cambodian.
There are many empty seats. Principal Robert R. Mendoza said the school was built to accommodate 400 boys, but the closest it has come to reaching capacity since it opened in 1962 is 370, about five years ago. About half the students receive financial aid to help their families pay the tuition, which is $1,700 for Catholics and $1,800 for others. The archdiocese contributes part of the school's annual budget. Additional help comes from fund raising done by the parents association and from a few corporate donors.
It has 20 teachers, including five clergy, to deliver a college-prep curriculum beginning in ninth grade, teach religion, coach athletic teams and provide extra tutoring when students start to falter. There are a college and career counselor, a part-time librarian and a nurse who visits twice a month. Six years ago the school added a security guard to keep out gang members and drug dealers.
About a third of the class of '91 went on to four-year colleges or universities and another 55% to two-year colleges or to vocational schools, said Mendoza, who added that the staff at Verbum Dei will give almost anyone a chance.
"We took a student from a local public high school who had straight F's, and his mother was desperate to get him out. We put him back a year, and his teachers worked with him. He improved to over a 2.0 (C average). At his other school he had had 67 absences. We don't let that happen. We try to be on top of things," Mendoza said.
Listening to Demetrius Washington talk about his experiences at Verbum Dei it is clear that he thrives on the academic challenge, feels heartened and supported by the small school intimacy and the extra attention that is always available from teachers and other staff members. He does not seem to chafe against the stringent rules of conduct spelled out in the student handbook or the strict dress code--dress shirts and ties, no jeans, no athletic shoes. Nor does he feel out of place as a Protestant at a Catholic institution.
"It definitely doesn't matter what particular religion you are in," said Washington. "Race and class don't matter, either. What they want is for you to do your work, be responsible and help others, and love one another like brothers."
Washington rides to school with his sister, a teacher at the nearby 112th Street Elementary School, who also helps with her brother's tuition. When after-school sports practice keeps him on campus late, the coach takes him home.
While schools throughout Southern California are experiencing tensions among students from different ethnic groups, Washington and other Verbum Dei students say their school's small size and attention to everyone's concerns have helped them form bonds.
"There have been times when we've formed our own little groups, but then the coaches (and other faculty) help us unite again," said Robert Arrioela, president of the junior class.
"We're like brothers here. We all have the same last name--Verbum Dei."
Catholic School Enrollment
Nationwide, for grades K through 12
Note: The percentage of non-Catholic students rose from 10.6% in 1982-'83 to 11.9% in 1990-'91.
Source: National Catholic Educational Assn
Los Angeles Archdiocese, for grades K through 12
The archdiocese includes Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Note: The percentage of non-Catholic students rose from 9.3% in 1981-'82 to 12.06% in 1990-'91.
Source: Annual School Census, Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Compiled by Times Researcher Tracy Thomas