Sister Barbara Ann Curran, director of the St. Peter Cathedral School at Sixth and West streets in Wilmington, tells the story of a former student whose mother had decided to move, which meant sending her boy to a new school.
“She thought she could make the move more palatable by telling her son the new school had a cafeteria and he’d be able to get a hot lunch,” Sister Barbara says. “Now, at St. Peter’s, we eat brown bag lunches in the classroom. So when the child heard about the cafeteria, he told his mother, ‘But here we all eat together as a family.’”
That sense of family defines the culture of Catholic elementary schools, especially in Wilmington. And those schools are far more diverse today than they were in the 1830s, when the Cathedral of St. Peter School opened to educate the orphans of workers killed in explosions at the DuPont gunpowder mills. That mission has evolved as times have changed.
“By the 1850s, the Catholic church here aligned itself with a ministry of education for the arriving immigrant populations to serve their educational needs, but also to preserve their native Catholic faith,” says Catherine P. Weaver, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wilmington. “The goal was to assist those immigrant communities in becoming successful ones.”
Today Catholic schools together would rank among the largest school districts in the state, if they were public, and those schools save taxpayers no small amount of money. What’s more, academic performance is well above the national average, by some measures.
The schools’ original goal of aiding immigrant and minority populations remains, though the ties of community are looser today, making it more challenging for Catholic schools to forge a sense of community among all the diverse populations it serves. Serving the distinct ethnic communities of Wilmington the way St. Anthony of Padua once served Little Italy, “peaked in the 1950s and 1960s,” says assistant superintendent of schools Louis P. De Angelo. “And then the world changed, and those original populations moved out of the city while our schools remained in place.”
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In addition to serving declining populations back then, economic pressures challenged the vitality of the diocese’s schools, especially in the inner city.
“The decline of vocations and the increased need for lay teachers added additional operational costs,” says Cindy Hayes Mann, an assistant superintendent of schools. (The diocese maintains a school staff of six administrators for a total statewide student population of 14,000, making the diocese an educational version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.)
To maintain school populations, Wilmington’s parochial schools receive students who not only represent the changing ethnic demographics of the communities they serve, but the various religious denominations as well.
“Our students at St. Peter’s are coming from a variety of non-Catholic backgrounds,” says Sister Barbara. That adds another challenge, says Hayes Mann. “The non-Catholic growth in the schools means that many more families are supporting church communities other than our own,” she says. “Nevertheless, the parish schools still are committed to serving them.”
The schools maintain their Catholic identity by imbuing education with an emphasis on Christian values and a focus on service to the community.
“Service is key to our mission,” says De Angelo. “In addition to doctrinal teaching that leads to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the transformational ingredient of Catholic education is demonstrating how society can be changed.”
St. Peter Cathedral rector Father Joe Cocucci says non-Catholic students respond positively to Catholic teaching. “They demonstrate reverence and are prayerful in our activities,” he says.
The contributions the Diocese of Wilmington schools make to the overall education of Delaware’s students is significant.
“Our enrollment makes us, effectively, the third largest school district in the state,” says Weaver. “And with almost 1,200 employees, we are also a significant employer.” In remarks made earlier this year to the House Education Committee, Weaver pointed out that “if the students who attend Catholic schools today were to enroll in public school tomorrow, the additional cost to the state would be in excess of $150 million per year.”
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Catholic school budgets are funded by several revenue streams, including parish subsidies (St. Anthony of Padua’s annual Italian Festival is a fundraiser for the parish’s elementary school) and tuition.
“This year, the diocese is awarding over $800,000 in tuition assistance,” says Weaver. “When combined with scholarship and tuition assistance efforts of local parish communities, the dollars available to needy families is well over $1 million annually.”
Little of that assistance comes from the state, despite the positive financial impact Catholic schools have on the cost of public education. Until 2008, Catholic schools had received state funding for driver’s education. (Students in parochial schools must now pay the $350 cost themselves.) The state still provides parents and schools with partial subsidies for some transportation costs and school nurses, though the state wanted to cut $50,000 of support for school nurses for fiscal 2010.
“The actual cost of providing school nurses is closer to $800,000,” Weaver says. “We’re not asking for additional funding,” she told the House Education Committee earlier this year. “Just restore the full $350,000 subsidy that the state had been providing.”
Despite budget pressures, the diocese remains committed to providing a school in the location where the children of Wilmington and the state need one. “Each school has a strategic plan focused on sustainability,” Weaver says. “Those plans include any number of new and creative financing strategies.”
Those strategies include an annual collection during church services for tuition assistance, capital campaigns funded through personal solicitation, improved financial reporting to develop better benchmarks for measuring a school’s viability, and an aggressive new marketing strategy designed to sing the praises of the diocese’s success. That kind of marketing is a radical departure from the diocese’s typically reserved and modest accounting of Catholic schools’ achievements—and those achievements are impressive.
“We have 99 percent graduation rates in our high schools, with most students going on to college level higher education,” says Weaver. Hayes Mann adds that SAT scores are higher than those at all but one public school. And De Angelo says elementary testing shows Catholic school students score at least 15 percent above the national average.
Parents, especially those whose children attend city schools, are lavish in their praise of the diocese’s commitment to their neighborhoods.
“We hear comments like, ‘This is like a jewel,’ or ‘I didn’t realize there was such an oasis here in the community,’ says Alexandria Cirko, principal of St. Paul School at Third and Van Buren.
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St. Peter and St. Paul reflect a dichotomy in the changed demographics of Wilmington. Sister Barbara says desegregation and the construction of I-95 through center city Wilmington meant that St. Peter’s would become about 97 percent black on the east side of the highway, while St. Paul’s on the west side would become 80 percent Latino.
“We use the Latin American Community Center’s gym as our school gym,” says St. Paul’s Cirko, who maintains a display containing the 10 South and Central American flags that represent the school’s diverse student population.
In addition to praise, parental involvement in parochial schools is significant.
“There are good parents in both the parochial and public schools,” says Richard Hart, a first-year principal at St. John the Beloved elementary school on Milltown Road. “But when there’s money involved in the sense of tuition, not only does there tend to be a greater participation in school activities among those tuition-paying parents, but there is a greater accountability placed upon us as teachers and administrators to deliver a superior product and one that we had promised.”
Doug Salter, a retiring member of the executive committee of the Diocesan Board of Catholic Schools, says Catholic schools remain vital to the quality of education in Delaware. “Educational quality improves when there is choice,” says Salter, “and that’s why the survival of Catholic schools remains so important.”
In addition to financial issues, other pressures on Catholic schools are more subtle. Deborah Ruff, principal of St. Catherine of Sienna on Centerville Road, says that because the founding families of her parish school are aging, “they can no longer contribute as much as they once did, so there is a constant need for new, younger families to move in and take their places.”
But Ruff notes that, with greater mobility, more families are sending their children to schools where, by virtue of where they actually live, they become less committed parishioners.
Charter schools are another source of competition and pressure on Catholic schools. But Shirley Bounds, principal of St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, says Catholic schools still offer a unique environment.
“Catholic schools stay connected to the communities where they are located,” Bounds says. “We continue to offer a community school.”
She notes that parents who attended St. Elizabeth’s come back for the annual open house. “We had seven grandmothers who attended, along with 10 sets of parents at our last open house. You’ll see that in each of our schools.”
Superintendent Weaver sums up the importance of Delaware’s parochial schools this way:
“Vision 2015 and the LEAD Committee have assembled a plan for world-class education in Delaware,” she says. “I believe that world-class education for Delaware depends on a mosaic of educational choices being available to our citizens. When public, independent, charter and faith-based schools work together, then the citizens of our states are well served.”
The need to preserve Delaware’s “jewels” and “oases” remains strong.