Schools of Knowledge

BC faculty contribute to a new book touting the success of Catholic
schools in the US and Great Britain

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

Catholic schools effectively educate disadvantaged students and are increasingly used as models by officials looking to improve the caliber of public education in America, according a new book that includes three Boston College faculty members as co-authors.

American and British scholars examine the assets of Catholic schools in both countries in The Contemporary Catholic School: Context, Identity and Diversity . Representing a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and viewpoints, the authors tackle some of the central questions facing Catholic schools today and provide a means to look at the future of Catholic schools intelligently.

Asst. Prof. Joseph O'Keefe, SJ (SOE), contributed to and co-edited the book. "Catholic schools have always been committed to providing educational opportunities to children who are marginal students or immigrants and this is part of the historical legacy I would like to see continue." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The Contemporary Catholic School includes chapters by Margaret O'Brien Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology David Hollenbach, SJ, Prof. Thomas Groome (Theology) and Asst. Prof. Joseph O'Keefe, SJ (SOE). Fr. O'Keefe co-edited the book, which was inspired by a 1993 conference he helped organize, and Boston College co-sponsored, at Cambridge University in England.

While Catholic schools in Britain and America may have important distinctions, the contributors note, one feature they hold in common is proficiency in educating economically and socially disadvantaged students.

"Catholic schools have always been committed to providing educational opportunities to children who are marginal students or immigrants and this is part of the historical legacy I would like to see continue," said Fr. O'Keefe.

British and American Catholic schools offer a valuable comparison, Fr. O'Keefe said, because they share similar histories - both drew upon massive Irish immigrant populations, for example - yet have evolved in significantly different ways. He noted that Catholic schools in Britain enjoy considerable support from public funds, while those in the US do not. Although the US does not link public education and religion, he pointed out, American Catholic schools are spared from potential government interference.

The book contends that Catholic schools - British or American - show how religious tradition plays a unifying role in education, Fr. O'Keefe said, and can contribute to the common good of larger society. In his chapter, Fr. Hollenbach says that Catholic schools are strengthened by the Catholic tradition, which espouses openness to people from diverse backgrounds and the commitment to serious academic preparation. Groome agrees that Catholic schools foster an environment which reflects Catholicism's strong emphasis on the "communal" nature of human existence.

"We are working from a 2,000-year-old tradition which has been inclusive of people from many different socio-economic backgrounds," said Fr. Hollenbach, "and has played an important role in enhancing economic prospects for a considerable number of poor people in the United States."

In the same way Catholicism has reached out to the less fortunate, Fr. O'Keefe said, Catholic schools have built a tradition of educating underprivileged children. But financially related closings of many Catholic schools in urban areas have been devastating, he said, because it leaves low-income families with few educational options for their children.

Fr. O'Keefe said the book is not meant to denigrate public education, because Catholic and public schools "can learn from one another and both should be strongly endorsed." Some aspects of Catholic schools appeal to public educators, however, like site-based management and the expression of explicit values, he said. Many public schools now facing fiscal constraints also are looking at how US Catholic schools have continued offering quality education despite constant financial struggles.

Catholic schools have traditionally held close ties with community programs like Catholic Charities, added Fr. O'Keefe, and public schools are beginning to develop similar bonds because they realize they cannot exist in isolation from other institutions - social service or health care agencies, for example - in the community.

"Given the needs of today's children, Catholic and public schools need to work together on both sides of the globe to provide the best education possible for today's youth," he said.

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