E-BRIEF: Religious Schools Make the Grade

The numbers are adding up for religious elementary schools in the United States.  The numbers of Jewish and Islamic elementary schools are rising while their Catholic counterparts have more checkered prospects, rising in some parts of the country while dwindling in others.  The changing face of elementary education owes to several factors.  Among them are the greater diversity of America's population, the challenges faced by inner-city neighborhoods and changing religious realities.

Below, university faculty, representatives of national education associations, and school principals share their perspective in this week's University of Cincinnati e-briefing.

Table of contents:

1. Just the stats

  • Graphing the rise and fall of Catholic schools
  • Jewish schools add to their numbers
  • Islamic schools poised for growth gains

2. A geography lesson

  • Catholic schools moving to the Sunbelt
  • Jewish schools cluster in New York/New Jersey
  • Islamic schools congregate in large, urban centers

3. On a mission in the inner cities, among immigrants

  • The "school" day is, literally, all day long
  • No such thing as a free education?
  • Achieving racial balance

4. Bottom line: Why families and communities are choosing religious elementaries

  • Increasing ecumenical respect
  • Part of being American and part of history's cycle
  • It's the quality...
  • Parents make up for what they missed
  • With America's largest Arab-Muslim population, Michigan models: I can be Muslim and American

1. Just the stats
A. Graphing the rise and fall of Catholic schools

Catholic elementary and middle schools enroll close to 2 million students in the U.S. More than 26 percent of those students are minorities, and more than 13 percent are non-Catholic.  They are educated in close to 6,000 elementary schools.  Last year across the nation, 93 Catholic schools closed or consolidated, most located in the Northeast and Midwest.  On the flip side, 49 new elementaries opened up in the Southeast, Southwest and far West.
Contact:  Sr. Dale McDonald, PBVM, director of Public Policy and Educational Research, National Catholic Education Association, 202-337-6232

B. Jewish school add to their numbers
cording to year 2000 figures, about 200,000 students are enrolled in the nation's approximately 800 Jewish day schools.  In purely numerical terms, enrollment growth has been greatest in Orthodox schools because Orthodox families tend to be larger.  However, since 1990, there has been significant growth in non-Orthodox schools, probably about 20 percent since the 1992-93 school year. 
Contact: Yossi Prager, executive director, THE AVI CHAI Foundation, 212-396-8850

C. Islamic schools poised for growth gains
In 1987, there were approximately 50 Islamic schools in the country.  Now, there are an estimated 300 educating up to 45,000 students.  That's a growth rate of about 600 percent, and a rate that's likely to continue, given that 50 percent of the Muslim population in the U.S. is under age 20. 
Contact: Karen Keyworth, co-founder, Islamic Schools League of America, 517-332-7476

2. A geography lesson
A. Catholic schools moving to the Sunbelt
Anne Battes Kirby, deputy superintendent, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, reports that Cincinnati, among the top 10 Catholic school districts in the country, experienced an enrollment decline of 2 percent last year.  This is part of a gradual decline owing to declining birth rates and population shifts.  The Midwest and the East are experience enrollment declines while the Southwest, Southeast and far West are experiencing gains.

"The Southwest, California, Texas and the Carolinas, where the Hispanics are, are the growth areas.  Our public school counterparts are experiencing the same thing....When I was a principal in Texas, we were bursting at the seams with a sometimes 300-student-long waiting list."

In Cincinnati, the northern suburbs are the growth areas, and the diocese has added three schools there.  In other parts of the city, Catholic schools are closing or consolidating.
Contact:  513-421-3131

B. Jewish schools cluster in New York/New Jersey
All told, New York State and New Jersey have 122,000 Jewish day schoolers, more than 55 percent of the U.S. total of schools and nearly two-thirds of all Jewish day school enrollment.  Apart from New York and New Jersey, only four states - California, Florida, Illinois and Maryland - have as many as 5,000 day schoolers.  In each of these states respectively, the schools and their students are prominently clustered in Los Angeles; Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties; Chicago and its suburbs; and Baltimore and the District of Columbia.  Ohio has about 3,400 elementary day school students in about 19 Jewish schools.  Indiana has 416 students in three schools.
Contact: Yossi Prager, The AVI CHAI Foundation, 212-396-8850

C. Islamic schools cluster in large, urban centers
Karen Keyworth, co-founder, Islamic Schools League of America, says that Islamic schools tend to be found in urban locales.  She checked off:  about 10 Islamic schools around Detroit, 10 around Chicago, about 10 in Washington D.C.  "Some schools are fairly large with 300 to 600 students.  Then, there are many that have between 50 to 100 students.  One thing stopping growth is the difficulty in finding a structure that's right for education and holds 600 students.  It's our biggest barrier to starting new schools."

She added that, currently, over 90 percent of students in Islamic schools are Muslim.  She predicts this will change once the Islamic schools have proved their staying power and academic track record.  "We're still fairly new.  As we grow, I think the schools will learn to accommodate students of other faiths just as the Catholic schools have done for a long time now....I was the principal of a school, and many non-Muslim parents were interested in sending their children to us, especially if someone in the extended family was Muslim."  
Contact: 517-332-7476

3. On a mission in the inner cities, among immigrants
A. The "school" day is, literally, all day long 
Sr. Dale McDonald, PBVM, director of Public Policy and Educational Research, NCEA, points to one place where she thinks Catholic schools will always have a mission no matter the general demographic shifts -- the inner city.  She pointed to a new experiment, called Christo Rey Nativity Schools which are to be found in about 12 large inner cities in the U.S., including New York City and Chicago.  These middle schools are designed as intensive intervention.  The inner-city students come for classes, stay after school for homework and, often, stay for dinner. 
Contact:  202-337-6232

B.  No such thing as a free education?
Karen Keyworth, co-founder, Islamic Schools League of America, says that, depending on children's needs and the ability of the community, some Islamic schools will educate students without regard for their ability to pay, through extensive scholarship programs sponsored by individual Muslims in the community.  "For instance, we have many Muslim refugees here in East Lansing (Michigan).  Because they're refugees, their incomes are so limited.  So, as many as half the student body of one of the local Islamic schools could be on scholarship."
Contact: 517-332-7476

C. Achieving racial balance
Judy Szilagyi, principal, Prince of Peace Catholic School in Cincinnati's Madisonville/Fairfax area, oversaw the consolidation of two former Catholic schools to form a new school that opened in the fall of 2002.  Now, the new school has 152 students, evenly divided between Catholic and non-Catholics, with most of the non-Catholic student body comprised of ethnic minorities.  Located in a city neighborhood, the school attracts students from both the local community and parish as well as more distant suburbs. 

"During the consolidation, I asked that the Center for Peace Education come in to work with us to build a sense of one community.  It's helped as the parents have really come together no matter if they were from one of the consolidating schools, from the neighborhood or from outside of the area."
Contact: 513-271-8288

4. Bottom line: why families and communities are choosing religious elementaries
A. Increasing ecumenical respect

ohn Brolley, director of Religious Studies at UC, says the numbers concerning Jewish education suggest is that an increasing number of interfaith couples are either choosing Judaism as their primary religious tradition, or that many interfaith couples are making efforts to honor both parents' religious upbringings.
Contact:  513-556-6546

B. Part of being American and part of history's cycle
Steven Fine, head of UC's Department of Judaic Studies, sends his son to Cincinnati Hebrew Day for elementary school while his youngest attends pre-school at Hebrew Union College.  He said that increasing enrollments in North America's Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day schools is "happening because the core of the Jewish community is strengthening itself.  Everybody knows the way to create Jewish children is through day-school education. It's a national trend. It's a result of the Americanization process. Jews don't have to prove they're American anymore. They can now go ahead and build their Jewish identity."

Fine also says that throughout history, including in the fifth and sixth centuries BC, Judaism has moved to re-Judaize itself. "This is one of those times. It's gotten so that if you're Orthodox and your kids aren't in day school, people think there must be something wrong with you, if you're Reform, and they're studying in a Jewish day school, it's no longer anathema but a positive step forward, and if you're Conservative, it's not only normal, but a positive result of a strong Jewish identity"
Contact: 513-556-2297

C. It's the quality...
Rabbi Abie Ingber, director of the University of Cincinnati Hillel Jewish Student Center, attended Jewish day school through his entire elementary and secondary educational years and is continuing the tradition with his four daughters. He says these schools are becoming more popular for two key reasons: the quality of the general education and the quality of the Jewish education. "The simplest of all critiques of afternoon school is, would you rather be out playing baseball or sitting in a temple for a few hours studying in religious school? Parents are choosing day school because of the educational and sociological benefit. A high percentage of the graduates of Jewish parochial schools go to college. That may be partly due to socioeconomics but it is also from getting a rigorous
education, as well as the positive sociology of raising children in a Jewish environment."
Contact: 513-221-6728

D. Parents make up for what they missed
Uri Gordon, director, The Jewish Teacher Corps, says that over half of America's Jews are unaffiliated with a particular denomination.  Many, perhaps the products of interfaith marriages, have been disconnected from their Jewish roots.  The same might be said, to some degree, of Reform and Conservative Jews who, traditionally, did not attend religiously oriented day schools   But that has changed in recent years.  And that's why the number of Conservative Jewish schools has grown to about 63 from about 20 schools three years ago. 

"Jews who 'missed out' on whole Jewish religious education want that for their children.  You can no longer build a sense of Jewish identity on anti-Semitism, the Holocaust or on support for Israel.  Jewish parents want their children to continue the traditions based on something innately meaningful, not merely as a response to sometimes tragic historical phenomena."
Contact: 212-244-7501, ext. 16 

E. With the world's largest Arab-Muslim population outside the Arab world, Michigan models: I can be Muslim and American
Sommieh Uddin, principal of Crescent Academy in Canton, Mich., leads a school of 275 students that was founded in 1990.  Next year, she expects her student body to jump by 90 students and doesn't figure to have much difficulty in reaching her own personal cap of 500 students in the next few years.  Her school benefits from a building boom in the suburbs surrounding Detroit.  Plus, Michigan has the largest concentration of Arab-Muslims outside the Arab world. 

She lists many reasons that Muslim parents opt for an Islamic school:  immigrant parents fear a loss of cultural and religious identity, and American-born Muslim parents may never have had the chance to learn Arabic (the language of the Qur'an or Koran) or may have been isolated or stereotyped in the public schools.  Uddin opines that 9-11 may have reinforced Muslim parents' resolve to seek out Islamic schools, especially if their children will have to face false suspicions that Muslims are associated with foreign governments.  "Parents want their children to be strong in their identity, to understand, 'I can be Muslim and American.' " 
Contact:  734-729-1000

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