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Catholic Schools

Area Catholic Schools Grow, Bucking Trend

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page C01

Catholic education in the region is expanding -- with the Archdiocese of Washington opening its first new elementary school in Montgomery County in a decade and hundreds of students heading to parochial schools under the D.C. voucher program.

In Northern Virginia, two high schools are being planned by the Diocese of Arlington, each to house about 1,000 students within three years.

Yemi Famuyiwa, left, and children Damisola, 1, and Fisola, 5, visit teacher Cathy Nedlock at the new St. Patrick's Elementary School in Rockville. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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This growth runs counter to figures that show a 4 percent nationwide decline in Catholic school enrollment in the past decade, most of it occurring recently after increases in the 1990s.

The Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the District and the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George's, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's, has seen a 13 percent increase at its more than 100 schools in the past 10 years, increasing its enrollment to 33,500 students.

The Diocese of Arlington, now with 42 schools and 17,850 students, reported a 32 percent jump in enrollment and has opened nine elementary schools in the past decade.

Beyond the Washington area's swelling population and strong economic base, Catholic educators attribute their success to a hunger among many families for religious-based values education. Parents also cite the fact that parochial school tuition is a fraction of the cost of top private schools in the region.

"The sense of values tied into the religion was important to me," said Megan Cole, whose two daughters, 7-year-old Molly and 5-year-old Bridget, will attend St. Patrick's Elementary, the Catholic school opening in Rockville this week.

"Public schools teach values as well," Cole said, "but it's not religious-based, and it's important to us."

St. Patrick's Principal Susan Malloy, whose school will open with 40 children in kindergarten through third grade, said many families also appreciate that Catholic schools traditionally have concentrated on reading, writing and arithmetic -- the same academic emphasis written into the federal No Child Left Behind Act for public schools.

"Catholic schools stuck with the basics," Malloy said, in part because they never had "a lot of money to do a lot of experimental education, and we are consistently strong because of it."

Many Catholic schools in the United States were built to cater to immigrant populations that lived largely in cities until the mid-1960s, when a shift to the suburbs created a crisis for the schools; suddenly they found themselves catering to populations that were largely non-Catholic. Today, some inner-city Catholic schools have majority non-Catholic student populations.

Antoinette Peterson is moving her two children from a D.C. public school to Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington this year, even though her family is Baptist. She said she likes the Catholic school's environment and academic rigor.

Her 16-year-old daughter, Thomeisha, said she appreciates the idea of stricter discipline and tough classes. "They do a prayer at the beginning of the day, and you have to take religion class, but you learn about other religions, too," she said. "They aren't going to try to make me Catholic."

Catholic schools in cities such as Chicago are struggling in large part because of changing demographics and because of the rising cost of education, said Michael J. Guerra, president of the National Catholic Education Association, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes Catholic education.

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