Like a Prayer

How the power of faith is fueling the revitalization of Catholic education

The kindergarten classes are just getting up from the rest period and having their afternoon snacks at Ascension School in Minneapolis. Several groggy kids are still sprawled on their mats on the floor. School principal Dorwatha Adderley, who is making a round of the classrooms this afternoon, bends over one girl, pushing her hair off her face and gently urging her to get up and join the other students at the tables.

One boy complains that he forgot his snack at home. His teacher suggests he ask his neighbor, Brandon, if he can have one of his crackers. After several tries at putting the question properly with the required "please," Brandon tosses a cracker with a bite out of it across the table. The teacher returns the cracker and tells him to provide a whole one. He hands a fresh snack to his classmate, who is instructed to say thank you.

Adderley uses the exchange to reinforce the lessons of sharing and helping one another. She relates a story of how recently she arrived late at the school's cafeteria to find the day's main course of chicken nuggets gone. She asked the eighth-graders eating lunch at the time if they would share some of what they had. They each contributed to her tray so she would not have to go without lunch.

"The Lord likes it when we share," she concludes. At Ascension School, located just a few blocks away from the noise and grit of Broadway Avenue in a poor section of the near north side of Minneapolis, God and Jesus are mentioned frequently throughout the day. Students pray and attend Mass regularly. The daily routine includes classes in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic along with a heavy dose of music. The rules of behavior are strict, but the teachers seem kindly and are willing to give individual care and attention to students, some of whom struggle with learning or behavior problems.

 

This is what parents these days want for their children, according to Adderley. When Adderley arrived at Ascension School twelve years ago, the enrollment was 163 and dropping, she says. But those bleak years are over. Last fall, the school had a waiting list of 100 children. With the blessing of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Ascension will double in enrollment over the next seven years from the current 220 to 440 students by adding a new class in one grade each year. This fall a kindergarten class was added. Next year, a new first grade class will open. Ascension mirrors a national and local renaissance in Catholic schools. In the ten-county Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are lengthy waiting lists at many Catholic elementary and high schools. Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, for example, had to turn away 220 freshman applicants last fall, according to Thomas McCarver, director of education and superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. Thirty-four schools in the area currently are undergoing remodeling or renovation to accommodate new students. A little more than a decade ago, Catholic schools in the metro area, like Cretin-Derham Hall, were consolidating or closing, McCarver says. In 1987, Regina High School in Minneapolis closed, and in 1991 Brady High School in West St. Paul shut its doors due to declining enrollment. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the trend began to reverse. "We were a bit caught by surprise," McCarver says. Now, parents are pushing to send their children to Catholic schools near their homes. To meet this need, three new metro area schools are on the drawing boards. Elementary schools are planned in Woodbury and Eagan, and a high school in the southwestern suburb of Victoria is slated to open in fall 2000. The turnaround is due to a convergence of several demographic and social factors, McCarver and others say.

First, there are just more Catholics in the area. The archdiocese, which is the 16th largest in Catholic school enrollment in the nation, is growing by 10,000 new Catholics residents a year, according to McCarver. Second, among this population there is a renewed desire among parents to educate their children in a Catholic school.

"The story being told time and again by parents is that with all the violence seen in society today, they want to move kids closer to safer conditions and conditions where values are stressed," McCarver says.

Pat Humphrey, whose son, Anthony, started at Ascension School in kindergarten and is now in fourth grade, sees Catholic school as the way for her son to get a well-rounded foundation academically, emotionally, and spiritually.

"With parochial schools they have more control over the whole child, not just in academics," she says. "There are lots of conceptions of the way Catholic schools used to be --ruled with an iron ruler by rigid nuns. Granted, there are rules, but they also allow Anthony to be an individual. They strengthen his weaknesses, but don't lessen who he is. Catholic schools can deal with all aspects of the child."

Teachers, too, are not as constrained by bureaucracy as they may be in public schools, says Adderley. "We can make changes much quicker than a public school," she says. "If we know we have a slow learner who needs extra support, we can do that without a lot of extra meetings. Teachers are able to teach here." Finally, dedicated lay leaders--administrators, teachers, parents, and volunteers--feel they have a duty to support and promote Catholic education as part of the mission of the church.

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