KENOSHA — Memories of the traditional uniform, lunch box, book bag and religious sisters in habits often bring smiles to the faces of reminiscing adults who grew up attending their neighborhood Catholic schools. Those same adults assumed their children would attend their parish schools and learn Catholic values as part of their academic formation.

Between generations, those schools, the parishes of which they were a part, and the parishioners themselves changed. Collectively, children and grandchildren of those reminiscing adults had fewer children. Rare is the parish-based school that is not challenged by decreasing enrollment and increasing costs for personnel. Rarer are habit-clad religious in those schools – religious whose predecessors helped keep the personnel costs low.

According to Wayne Thompson, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Carthage College, there are major obstacles to Catholic schools flourishing. He discussed his research and its findings in a March 1 seminar at Carthage College, and included information from two surveys with Kenosha parishioners and Catholic school parents about Catholic schools. He compared that data to what he discovered in an identical study in Marshfield.

Issues such as parental cost of a Catholic education, the lack of access to child care, higher cost of paying lay teachers in contrast to years of service by religious,  as well as the desire for special education, computer courses and extracurricular activities are often reasons parents choose to send their children to public schools.

Additionally, in the Kenosha area with the recent school mergers, Thompson learned that the traditional parish schools are disappearing due to a lack of scholarships, declining parish subsidies and declining enrollments.

“Parents are the frontline in the battle over Catholic schools, since a ‘choice’ orientation spills over from the general culture, and the more blatant discrimination and prejudice against Catholic immigrants has somewhat declined,” he said, pointing to the fact that with school choice, Hispanics are increasingly choosing Catholic schools for their children. In the Milwaukee Archdiocese, from the 2000-01 school year to 2010-2011 school year, there was an increase of 2,946 Latino students in the elementary schools and 489 in the high schools.

“For Latinos, the concerns are twofold: are they committed to Catholic education for their children and who would pay the costs since Latinos are less able than whites to afford Catholic schools.”

His Kenosha study included 310 Spanish speakers who appeared to be less committed to Catholic education, younger than the overall Catholic adult population in Kenosha and less economically able to afford Catholic tuition and related costs.

After interviewing administrators, staff/faculty, parents and priests, he found that the more traditionally minded Catholics supported the K-8 parish model; however, that model is vulnerable to enrollment declines due to the inability of the parish to support the school.

“This indicates a rift in the Catholic community with moderate Catholics more supportive of consolidation and more traditional Catholics committed to the K-8 parish-based model,” he said. “In Marshfield, consolidation occurred in 2002 when one parish K-8 school was closed and remaining grades were divided among two other parishes. Similar to Kenosha’s consolidated school (St. Joseph Academy), the junior high school in Marshfield was combined in the same building as the high school.”

The two communities differ in that Kenosha has a population of 165,382 and draws about 100 students from Illinois, while the size of Marshfield – 18,148 – limited the opportunity for competition between the consolidated approach and the traditional parish based K-8 school model.

Despite the financial aspects of Catholic education, Thompson learned that the education of Catholic women might be another factor in their offspring not pursuing a Catholic education. In Fr. Andrew Greeley’s 1982 book, “Angry Catholic Women,” he argued that Catholic baby boomer women, especially those who are college educated, send mixed signals about their Catholic identity to their children.

“He was my mentor and wrote four books and numerous articles about Catholic schools,” said Thompson. “Pursuant to the 1968 encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae,’ many Catholic women in North America ignored Catholic teaching about birth control. This ‘choice’ orientation results in selective perceptions about Catholic identity and authority in private, moral decisions. Fr. Greeley suggested in that book and others that young, educated Catholic women would send mixed messages about their Catholic identity to their children and might be less eager to choose Catholic education for them as well. Since Catholic school enrollment since the 1960s has fallen from five (million) to two million, he may have been right about that study, although his evidence was correlational, and causal links were not well established in that study.”

The future for Catholic schools may be an elitist one, according to Thompson, who admitted that while Fr. Greeley didn’t like that prospectus, with escalating costs and loss of parish identity, the Catholic schools may become the province of higher social class families, including the 10-15 percent of students nationwide who are not Catholic.

As an example, Thompson is a Lutheran who attended Catholic high school in 1973 and was the only non-Catholic in the school. In some cities, school choice allows a variety of Catholic and non-Catholic students of various races to attend Catholic schools using government money. However, in some of these schools and academies, 70 to nearly 100 percent of the students are non-Catholic, especially when (primarily Baptist) African Americans are the key enrollees.

“There are also ‘new paradigm’ Catholic parishes sprouting up in suburban locations, but often they don’t have their own parish-based schools,” said Thompson. “As the Catholic population continues to shift from ethnic neighborhoods of immigrants to the suburbs, Catholic schools are not following them.”

When they do, tuition costs, especially for consolidated Catholic high schools, become prohibitive for Latinos and Catholics of modest means, and when the suburban schools do thrive, it is generally at the high school level.

“Inner city students must find transportation and scholarships to attend these elite suburban academies,” Thompson said. “That paints a bleak portrait for fulfilling the ‘preferential option for the poor’ that is a cherished value at a premium for many Catholic educators in Catholic education.”

While Catholic schools are perceived to be of high quality, Thompson’s study also finds that when public schools are of seemingly reasonable quality, Catholics are more willing to consider transferring out of Catholic schools for their children.

“There is a major concern in Marshfield where the local tax base is solid, supported by the Marshfield Clinic with over 500 physicians, and the local schools are perceived to be excellent, offering advanced placement courses,” said Thompson, adding, “And the remaining 600 students in Marshfield Catholic schools are seen as ‘targeted’ by the public schools.”

Thompson’s next research projects include ecological analysis of populations of all types of Catholic schools in a variety of resource environments, additional study of stakeholders embedded in local community systems of Catholic parishes and schools, and more study of religious motives and factors in Catholic education, including non-school religious education and its impact on Catholic identity and loyalty.

While Thompson and his family attend a Lutheran church in Racine, their two daughters, 11 and 5, attend St. Peter Catholic School, which closed at the end of the school year. Thompson said the closing was an unexpected turn of events as he completed his study. He had done the research before the school closing was announced, but it became more personal for him when he experienced the changes in education first hand. His children, who will enter first grade and seventh grade in the fall, will continue their Catholic education at St. Joseph Academy, Kenosha.

“There’s no crystal ball regarding the future of Catholic education,” said Thompson. “No one knows what the future will bring – not researchers, not people engaging in conversations in the parking lots after Mass, and even when predictions are made, they are often wrong,” but he explained his goal in researching Catholic education was to hear the voice of the parents who make the decisions regarding education for their children.