25 things vanishing in America, part 2: Catholic schools

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There was a time when parochial schools seemed almost omnipresent, when the daily migration of kids in plaid clothes seemed to fill every street. However, with enrollments plummeting and one school after another closing its doors, the torrent of Catholic school kids has become a trickle, and it looks like the days of Catholic education may well be numbered.

For many Americans, Catholic education is a painful, if fondly-remembered, rite of passage. Whether they did their time in local parish schools or more prominent prep schools, the standard uniforms of jumpers and kilts, Peter Pan collars and ties, sweaters and blazers are permanently branded on their memories. Speaking as somebody who could once recite the Angelus and Memorarae, and who got extra credit for memorizing some of the hundreds of names for Mary (Star of the Sea, Our Lady of the Snows...), I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about this decline.

When it comes to Catholic education in America, the numbers are downright startling. In 1965, approximately half of all Catholic families sent their kids to parochial schools; today, roughly 15% do so. While there are numerous reasons for this, the big one seems to be that the cost of parochial school has vastly increased.

Once upon a time, Catholic classes were largely taught by clerics. Today, however, fewer Catholics are choosing to enter the priesthood or the nunnery; in fact, one statistic states that there are presently more nuns over 90 than under 50 years old. A large part of this can be attributed to family size: as families have shrunk, parents have increasingly discouraged their kids from taking holy orders. Fewer priests and nuns translate into fewer unpaid teachers, which translates into more lay educators and a costlier education.

Another concern has been a reduction in religious definition. For many people, Catholicism has become less of an all-consuming lifestyle and more of a part-time identity. Where Catholic education was once a responsibility for Catholic parents, it is increasingly becoming an expensive luxury.

Furthermore, in areas where public education has improved, parochial education has suffered. For example, in Northern Virginia, where I grew up, Catholic schools once offered the best educational choices. However, as the area's schools have improved, Catholic education has simply become a more expensive option. I was confronted with this recently when I spoke to an old teacher. Still employed at the school that I had attended, he rhetorically asked "why should parents pay more when we're offering the same curriculum as [public schools]?"

This has especially become a problem in areas where Catholic education was once dominant. In Baltimore, the so-called cradle of Catholic education in America, the drop in enrollment has accelerated, and is currently down 5% over last year. Meanwhile, Philadelphia, the city that produced most of my high school priests, has witnessed declines of up to 40% in parochial school enrollments over the past three years. Even my high school, where a significant number of teachers once wore Roman collars, no longer has a single full-time priest on staff.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I have mixed feelings about the decline of parochial education in America. When I compare my schooling to the outstanding public-school education that my youngest sister received, I realize that there are definite benefits to both sides. For example, while she got to choose her clothing in high school, my uniform made it much easier to get dressed in the morning. Similarly, while I envy my sister the comparatively free self-expression that her public school encouraged, I am also grateful for my school's strict discipline. Her school had better resources, but mine offered more classes in philosophy and critical thinking.

In the end, however, I'm still the only one of us who knows that Mary is also called the "Singular vessel of devotion." That has to count for something

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