"SOMETIMES I THINK they're too strict. If you're one minute late for class you get detention," Kim Kearse, age 16.
"They do it for our own good. When you get a job, they pay yoy to be there on time, not one minute late," Jacqueline Bullock, 16.
"If I can't be one minute late for work, then I need a new boss," Kim Kearse.
"If you can't be on time, then you're going to need a new job," Virna Ingram, 16.
A look through the year books of St. Cecilia's High School from the early '60s through the present shows that this Catholic girls' school not far from the ycapitol has undergone a transformation typical of urban parochial schools all over the country. What used to be a predominately Catholic, white student population is now almost half Protestant, and almost entirely black. The student bodies in half of the archdiocese's 12 secondary schools are predominately black; of the 26 elementary schools, 20 have majority black enrollments. The overall racial figures for the elementary schools show that 79 percent of the enrollment is black and 45 percent is non-Catholic.
These nontraditional students are entering Catholic schools because they, and their parents, find there a traditional educational environment missing from the public schools, which draw from much the same population.
"Catholic schools were originally fomred as an alternative to Protestant schools. Now Protestant parents are finding public schools aren't forming values and are turning to Catholic education," says Gerald Grant, professor of sociology and education at Syracuse University. "Teachers at Catholic schools operate with a greater grant of authority than the public school teacher feels. But the kids aren't just screwed to their seats. They learn. tAnd while they learn, they learn to respect each other."
Social researchers such as James Coleman and the Rev. Andrew Greeley have found that blacks and Hispanics do better at Catholic schools than do their counterparts at public schools. Criticism has been directed at Coleman and Greeley for supposedly not taking into account the difference in home environment between children attending Catholic school and those at public school. But, concedes one critic, Donald Erickson, director of the Center for Research on Private Education at the University of San Francisco, "Students at Catholic schools do better by every standard measure than those at public schools: Scholastic Aptitude Tests, college attendance rates, and standardized tests.
"What you see in those schools logically promotes higher achievement. That is, an orderly environment, committed teachers, and regular homework assignments."
These qualities are much in evience at the coeducational, all-black Assumption School. Assumption, located in Southeast Washington, and staffed entirely by lay people, many of them Protestants, has 260 children in grades one through eight.
When Principal Wilma Durham, herself a Baptist, pays an unexpected visit to Harvey Reed's third-grade class, all the children jump up and call in unison, "Good morning, Mrs. Durham."
The classroom is neat if utilitarian, the order emphasized by the girls in their blue plaid uniforms, and the boys in light blue shirts and navy pants. The acknowledgement of Catholicism is unobtrusive if certain -- a stone of the Virgin Mary is anchored above the blackboard. One bulletin board is covered with oversized punctuaiton marks. "A colon comes right before a list of items or ideas," reads the explanation beside two large dots. There are no cafeteria facilities at Assumption; a pile of Snoopy, Star Wars and Redskins lunchboxes rests on one shelf. A different student is chosen to lead the class in grace each day before lunch. Posters describing instruments in a band, the space shuttle and American Indian chiefs adds some decoration.
When teacher Reed, an imposing, no-nonsense figure and a natural teacher, goes to the board to run through multiplication problems, the classroom is alive with waving hands and cries of, "Mr. Reed, Mr. Reed, call on me, Mr. Reed." Reed orders the hands down as one boy struggles at the board to work out a problem.
"It's good that they're eager to give you the answers, but they've got to learn everyone is not a fast achiever, and they must respect those who are not," Reed explains later.
After the exercise at the board Reed gives the students 20 minutes of algebra to do at their desks. The workbooks fly open, all taking ceases. Occasionally Reed addresses some comments to the class: "Try not to count on your fingers. You're going to run out of them, and I don't want to see you take off your shoes to count your toes." "Turn all the way around to the front, and take that piece of trash off the side of your desk."
Reed, who is not Catholic, says that his role as a teacher is broad: "I feel there's more tahn academics. They learn about getting along in life. They need to feel good about having God with them."
The matter of religion and values, while addressed directly in the mandatory religion classes, is one th at the Catholic schools fell can be reinforced through the entire academic program.
"Before my time there were 'Catholic" math texts," says Sister Kathleen Reilly, who has been St. Cecilia's principal for the past four years and has recently been transferred by her order to a school in the Midwest. "We don't do that any more, but we're constantly moving to take religion and values into life. Our teachers have a willingness to work with the students outside the classroom. There are penalties for tardiness. We have no problem with the destruction of property in the school. All that's important for building values later in life."
Another problem which has plagued public schools, drugs, is not in evidence at St. Cecilia's, which is operated by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
"If there are drugs here I don't see it," says Kim Kearse. "The girls here don't abuse their freedom by doing stuff like that."
"We have too much respect for the school to do that," adds Virna Ingram.
As enthusiastiac as the students can be about their schools (Keya Jones, 9, who plans to be a doctor, explains that she likes Assumption, "because I like the way they teach and the uniforms, and I like spelling"), it is the parents who foot the bill. And a pretty hefty bill it can be. Tuition at St. Cecilia's will be $1,100 in 1981-82. Assumption costs $720. There is a discount if more than one child from the same family attends. Rates can also be adjusted for families unable to pay full tuition.
Alice Howard put her then 10-year-old son Reginald in public school when she first moved to the District from rural Virginia two years ago. Last year she switched her son to Assumption.
"In public school the classes were very large and the teacher wasn't that interested," Howard says. "My son was very unhappy there. He would do homework that was never picked up. That's discouraging for a child. He said if he had to go back he would run away. And it seems that if a kid wants to do well in public school, he's castigated by the other kids. They used to steal my son's pencils, and when I called the teacher about it, he said he couldn't do anything because he had to look after all the other kids.
"Reginald likes Assumption so much that he's going to summer school there. It's a small school, not elaborate, but Reginald gets a good basic education. . . . I'm a pretty hard working single parent, and it's too bad I can't take advantage of my tax dollars to give him a good education. But you make sacrifces. You muddle through."
The role of the parent is an essential one in the Catholic school system. Parents have to sign the homework of children in the lower grades at Assumption. "There is a contract between the parent and the school," says Principal Duham. "If there are problems, the teachers will call the parents and visit the home."
For all their strengths, Catholic schools are not nirvana. In spite of the increasing numbers of minority and non-Catholic students entering the schools, their enrollment is still down significantly from 10 years ago, although the numbers appear to have stablized recently. In 1970-71 the Archdiocese of Washington had 9,746 students enrolled in its schools, of whom 1,180 were not Catholic. Today there are 7,483 students with 3,419 of those not Catholic.
"At one time I wondered if we would make it through the '70s without some sort of tax relief. But I'm very optimistic about it now. It's a financial strain, but we'll make it," says the Rev. Robert Nagle, assistant superintendant of elementary schools for the Archdiocese of Washington.
And in spite of the supportive environment of St. Cecilia's, some of the black students have expressed a poor self-image. "A lot of the girls have very little confidence in themselves. Part of that may be a previous lack of success," says Siter Kathleen Reilly. "A lot of them express great fears about going into a work world that's predominately white. One of our most capable students expressed nagative feelings about herself because she's black. And she should have every confidence in the world."
And many come to the school so bereft of the fundamentals that they never full catch up.
"My theory is that they have not been challenged, they may never have been spoon fed. And that sort of thing can be subliminal, environment is very important," says Sister Mary Virginia, a teacher at St. Cecilia's.
The faculty at St. Cecilia's has also had to come to grips with the question of "ghetto" English. "We have decided to correct them in the classroom, but not in their private conversations in the hall. Although we had one black brother who said we should correct them all the time, that we must insist they learn standard English," says Sister Kathleen.
Whatever problems may exist, a small sample of parents of students at St. Cecilia's and Assumption were more than happy with their choice of Catholic education.
"The teachers are strict, but compassionate. They teach the kids they must be responsible for their own acts," says John Emery, whose son attends Assumption. "It's been a great investment. If you don't educate your child, what can you do?"