Urban Catholic schools seem to have all the answers these days when it comes to educating disadvantaged students. Among other successes spotlighted by the media, they’re sending a higher percentage of low-income, minority students onto college than do their public school counterparts.

Critics call the comparison apples and oranges: Catholic schools have options public schools don’t, like barring low performers and dismissing the unruly.

Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas rejects the argument. “There are many parochial schools in this city that deal with children from at-risk environments who are no different from the children we’re dealing with.”

He credits the Catholic schools’ more standardized, traditional curriculum for the reported higher student achievement. Compared with the Catholic schools, he says, “Our curriculum is too diverse and too diffuse. You can literally cherry-pick your way through the easiest courses.”

Some research supports Vallas’ claim. For example, a study of schools in seven major U.S. cities found that Catholic schools produced more even achievement among students of different races and classes than did public schools—that is, minority and poor Catholic students didn’t lag as far behind as did their counterparts in public schools.

Catholic schools had “a common core of academic work for all students, regardless of background,” says Anthony Bryk, a University of Chicago professor who co-authored the study. More courses were required, and fewer electives offered. As Chicago was not part of the study, Bryk says he’s uncertain how its public school curriculum compares to the Catholic school version.

Chicago teachers who have worked in both Catholic and public schools say curriculum and teaching are not so different.

“They had English, we have English. They had math, we have math,” says Valerie Enwall, assistant principal of St. Benedict High School in North Center, who formerly taught at Steinmetz High in Belmont Cragin. “The biggest difference is the parental support. Parents [here] care about what students are doing academically.”

She goes on to note other advantages at St. Benedict: stricter discipline, less racial tension among students and smaller size (just 600 students, compared to an average of 1,400 in the Chicago public schools).

Curriculum not #1

Assistant Principal Ken Hunter of Amundsen High in Lincoln Square taught in Catholic schools for 20 years and thinks the greatest difference in Catholic schools is a stronger sense of community. Most Catholic schools have a mission statement that faculty and staff periodically renew, he says.

The process of crafting such a statement “helps teachers feel valued.” Also, “it tells kids we care enough that we want to share [this mission] with you because we think it’s important.”

He agrees with Enwall, though, that higher student achievement is more “a function of the home” than a difference in the teaching or curriculum.

In fact, freshmen and sophomores in Chicago’s public schools do follow a core curriculum, according to Director of Curriculum Andrea Kerr. She’s unaware of any school that would allow underclassmen to substitute electives for core courses in English, math, science and social studies. Juniors and seniors are offered more electives, Kerr notes, and these sometimes replace core courses. A policy under consideration would bar students from substituting an elective for a core course, e.g., journalism for English 4.

But not all electives are fluff, says Principal John Gelsomino of Kelly High School in Brighton Park. When Kelly seniors opt for Drama in place of English 4 World Literature, they study plays from around the world, such as works by Anton Chekhov.

At the same time, Gelsomino agrees with Vallas that “stand-alone courses that start nowhere and lead nowhere” should be eliminated. After this year, Kelly will drop psychology, which some students took instead of a third year of social studies.

Still, Kelly’s course offerings likely will remain diverse compared to some private and suburban schools, Gelsomino says. “Our problems are different. Our concerns are different. Our populations are different.” For instance, Kelly offers freshmen eight English courses, each aimed at a different reading level or stage of English proficiency. Catholic schools offer courses at different levels but not that many.

Bryk agrees that problems in Chicago’s public high schools go far beyond curriculum. He helped direct a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research that found teacher morale, for example, at dismal depths. Public high school teachers reported a “low trust of colleagues, very little collaboration on what to do to raise student achievement,” he says.

Principals and teachers have little control over their environments and are isolated from each other and from their students, he says, blaming school size and complexity and the bureaucratic nature of the system. What the system needs, he says, is “a strategy that allows like-minded teachers to come together and decide how they’re going to teach.”

“A big reason that Catholic schools are successful is that you’ve got teachers who are strongly committed to the educational philosophy of the school—they want to teach in that community, they want to teach those kids. Those are powerful factors in making effective schools for disadvantaged youth.”

Vallas sees the need for smaller units that permit “a more intimate environment.” He advocates junior and senior academies with their own identified faculties. “Our high schools have got to undergo some fundamental restructuring before they can even begin to move.”

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