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Catholic Schools Week is keeping the faith

| Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005

Next week, students in Catholic schools across the region and across the country will demonstrate how they are keeping the faith.

Catholic Schools Week was started in 1974. Catholic schools traditionally have celebrated in late January with open houses and a variety of special events and projects.

This year's theme, "Faith in Every Student," has a double meaning, said Michael Guerra, president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

"Our mission is to grow faith in every child, and at the same time, our academic institutions have faith in the capacity of all our students," Guerra said. "We have faith, and we work to instill faith."

The celebration includes a wide variety of approaches and activities.

For example, students at St. Malachy School in Kennedy will see a play that dramatizes the life of St. Joan of Arc. At North American Martyrs School in Monroeville, a quilt created by students will be presented at a Mass on Sunday.

The students at St. Joan of Arc School in South Park will be busy with a Family Beach Blanket Lunch, a student talent show and a pep assembly, among other activities. And students at St. Bonaventure School in Shaler will be "appreciating" something different each day, including parents, teachers, students and their heritage.

Chris Squire, principal at St. Bonaventure, said the activities for that school's Catholic Schools Week celebration are based almost entirely on student input.

"It's really special for them, because they're so involved with the events," Squire said. "The Heritage Day is always popular because the students get to learn something about their classmates and themselves."

Enrollment in Catholic schools remains healthy but has declined slightly, according to the national association. Demographics and economics affect Catholic schools as much as anything else, Guerra said.

"When tuition goes up, it becomes more difficult for some low- and middle-income families," Guerra said. "And when populations shrink, often, the number of families with school-age children decreases, which bring enrollment down."

In Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, the average elementary tuition for Catholic schools is $2,100, said the Rev. Kris Stubna, diocesan secretary for education. But local schools have held their own, said Stubna, due in no small part to strong support from local parishes.

"We've been able to increase the student base at many schools," Stubna said. "We will spend (Catholic Schools Week) trying to build relationships with larger communities."

According to the national association, enrollment at Catholic schools was down 2.7 percent in the 2003-2004 school year. The number of students attending Catholic schools remains close to 2.5 million, but 123 Catholic schools were consolidated or closed last year, while 34 new ones were opened.

Pennsylvania had the third-largest number of students in Catholic schools in 2003-2004, with 204,740 children in 658 schools. Only New York and California had more.

Guerra said some Catholic schools -- especially in the Boston area -- still might be having a hard time raising funds in the wake of several high-profile cases involving pedophile priests.

But Guerra said he doesn't think that backlash has or will affect other dioceses across the country. "It's up to the bishops to build a community of trust in their parishes and in their schools," Guerra said.

In Pennsylvania, Catholic schools and other private schools benefit from the Pennsylvania Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which allows businesses to forego $45 million a year in taxes in exchange for contributions to approved private school scholarship funds, preschools and nonprofit groups that provide services in public schools.

Stubna said a scholarship fund has been created for the donations from the Educational Improvement Tax Credit.

Guerra said an ever-growing portion of Catholic schools' students are not children who are not Catholic. "You don't have to be Catholic to like Catholic schools," Guerra said. "Non-Catholics come to us for three reasons: strong academics; a good, secure environment; and religious and moral values."

In 2003-2004, non-Catholic enrollment was 13.5 percent of total enrollment, or about 335,000 students, according to the national association.

Catholic Schools week begins Sunday and continues through Feb. 5.

St. Bonaventure's Squire said that if there was one thing he could change about Catholic Schools Week, it would be the late January date.

"I can't remember a Catholic Schools Week that's gone by without something being delayed or canceled by the weather," he said.

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