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In our opinion: Catholic schools provide a unique option in Utah's vibrant educational landscape

Published: Monday, Aug. 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Aug. 11 2014 12:01 a.m. MDT

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In just a short time, the school year will begin. And over the next decade, an unprecedented number of new students are projected to flood into Utah’s public education system. Meeting their needs will require innovative solutions and different approaches. As such, elected officials and school administrators might do well to take a cue from Utah’s Catholic schools, which are doing something right.

Nationwide, Catholic schools have seen a serious decline in enrollment over the past few decades. Fifty years ago, there were nearly 13,000 Catholic schools in the United States with more than 5.2 million students. Today, the number of Catholic schools has been cut in half, and the number of students has dropped to 1.8 million.

Utah, however, is bucking the national trend. Since 1999, five Catholic schools opened their doors, and none have closed despite increased competition from the surge in charter schools. Enrollment has remained stable, and the quality of the education is impossible to deny. Catholic schools can boast of their astonishing 99 percent graduation rate, and Utah’s Catholic schools rank in the 98th percentile in their rate of college placements.

Public schools don’t even come close to those numbers.

Some observers attribute this success to the ability of parochial schools to deny admission to problem students, whereas public schools have to take all comers. There is some truth in that assessment, but the educational environment is continually changing on that score. Sister Catherine Kamphaus, the superintendent of Utah’s Catholic school system, recently told the Deseret News there has been an increased focus on admitting students with low to moderate learning disabilities in the past few years. The effects of increased competition in the educational system make it necessary for all schools to accommodate as many students as possible. The Catholic system is no exception to the rule.

Another fact that may surprise observers is about a fourth of all students in Utah’s Catholic schools are not Catholics. Mormons, Protestants, Jews and Buddhists combined make up approximately 25 percent of Catholic school students, and both the students and parents of other faiths can have a positive experience in these schools. Parent surveys show that educational excellence is the primary factor for enrolling their children in Catholic schools, followed by the safe environment these schools provide. Religious faith ranks third as a consideration. It’s encouraging to know people of different faiths can find value in a Catholic educational experience.

Of course, Catholic schools are not for everyone. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Utah’s education needs have a no one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s heartening to know Utah’s Catholic school system continues to thrive as a viable option for those who want it.

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