Wichita Eagle Article
To: THE WICHITA EAGLE
Date: February 16, 2015
CATHOLIC SCHOOLS Provide Students a Community of Support
A student is not an amalgam of test scores and demographic information. Each student is a unique and irrepeatable human being with gifts and challenges that cannot be reduced to a transcript, a report card, or a trophy case. In a world dominated by sound bytes and competing statistics, how does a school foster the growth of each individual beyond test scores?
Much research has been done highlighting the value of a school as a community versus a school as an institution. There is, of course, no denying that schools are institutions of learning. Students take required courses. Parents comply with compulsory education laws. Teachers must maintain appropriate licenses. The state constitution mandates a system of schools. Any school that satisfies all those obligations is likely good enough.
As the saying goes, however, good enough never is. Research that runs back five decades highlights the power of a network of support (sometimes called social capital) to maximize student growth and achievement. Starting with Andrew Greeley’s quinquennial surveys, highlighted by the landmark (and controversial) studies of Dr. James Coleman, and punctuated by the work of Bryk and Holland, it is clear that if we want children to reach their full capacity, we must surround them with a community of support.
Why are Catholic Schools particularly suited to do this?
v Catholic schools are parochial. They anchor neighborhoods. They are built, funded, sponsored, and filled with families from individual Catholic parishes. This site-based ownership fosters high expectations and local pride. It sometimes seems as though half of west Wichita has its roots at St. Joseph parochial school while eastsiders detail their lineage from Blessed Sacrament. Recent research in Chicago even found that where there are Catholic grade schools in neighborhoods, crime rates are lower.
v Catholic schools are small. Research is inconclusive at best about the benefits of smaller class sizes, but there is much more evidence that students from smaller schools consistently achieve higher than students from larger schools. With K-8 enrollments averaging about 200 students and secondary school enrollments ranging from 240 to 1,160; Catholic schools are large enough to provide essential services while small enough that an individual student can’t get lost. In a smaller school, a student is a person, an individual, and not just a number in a lottery of 120-150 Grade 4 students.
v Catholic schools make big schools smaller. Even in larger Catholic schools, one finds that the school-within-a-school concept downsizes the school. Typically a pre-kindergarten through Grade 8 school is divided into three sections: early childhood (PK-K); primary (Grades 1-5) and middle school (Grades 6-8). In this way, the developmental needs of each group of children can be addressed separately within the context of the larger school.
v Children stay in the same school for up to ten years. Catholic grade schools offer everything from pre-school through Grade 8 in one school. Over that ten year period, not only do parents get to keep their children in the same school for longer; they also get to know the same teachers, the same families, and the same facilities. The teachers get to know the children better because they know the family longer.
v What are the results? In the close-knit relationships that are formed in a decade or more in the same place, it is more possible to provide an education that will challenge children because the teachers know them better, and parents know the teachers better. Teachers can choose methods to develop and maintain a love of learning. Of course, in a Catholic school, teachers can build on the moral foundation laid in the home and teach children the “why” of living and not just the “how” of learning. It follows naturally that in a Catholic school, formation extends to emotional and social development as well. We believe that this wholistic formation best prepares students for adulthood, college, career, and family or whatever their vocation may be.
I have long suspected that while parents care about grades and test scores, they care even more about foundational behaviors: motivation, engagement, study habits, healthy relationships, respectful and responsible attitudes. Not so easily measured, perhaps, but unquestionably important. I believe that Catholic schools have had their great success because of the network of support that the entire Catholic community provides to the children of their parish in the intimate setting of a parochial Catholic school.