The Value of a Catholic Education

Commencement Address

Saratoga Central Catholic High School

June 10, 2000.


John J. Pitney, Jr.,

Class of 1973



You come from many different places, and you’re going to many different colleges, but you all have one thing in common: a little touch of fear.


You will soon be leaving a warm and comfortable environment for a new kind of schooling in an unfamiliar setting.


And at some point in the months ahead, you’ll have a moment of doubt when you say to yourself, “I went to this teeny little Catholic high school in a small town.  How can I keep up with all the people around me?”


I know.  I felt exactly that way 27 years ago when I started at Union College.  It was pretty intimidating to leave Saratoga for the bright lights of . . . Schenectady.  (Well, at the time it seemed like a big city to me.)  I noticed that many of my classmates had gone to these big, fancy, well-financed schools in New York City and its suburbs.  My heart sank when I heard them talk about all the resources their schools had.  And I worried that I couldn’t keep up.


But I did.  And after a while, I realized that I wasn’t just keeping up, but I was getting good grades.  In the end, I graduated as co-valedictorian of my college class.


It wasn’t just me.  The St. Peter’s class of 1973 has had several reunions, and one message has come through quite clearly: overall, we’ve done well.  We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, and leaders in business.


We didn’t make it on the basis of economic privilege.  In fact, most of our parents never attended college. 


We did have other kinds of advantages, though.  First, our parents sacrificed for us so that we could enjoy opportunities that they never had.


Second, we went to St. Peter’s High School.  (That’s the real name of this institution, but we can discuss that issue at another time!)


It wasn’t just St. Peter’s -- and it wasn’t just the class of 1973. All other things being equal, students from Catholic schools tend to do better.   Every fall, when I grade my first batch of freshman papers, I look up the backgrounds of the students who did the best work.  And usually, a disproportionate share of them come from Catholic schools.


Over the past few years, one of my finest students has been Robert Tagorda.  When he came immigrated to the United States from the Philippines at the age of nine, he first attended public schools.  A couple of years later, he switched to Catholic school, and noticed a marked difference: Catholic schools try much harder to involve parents in their children’s education.  He excelled in this setting, graduating as valedictorian of Bishop Amat High School.  And he came to Claremont McKenna College in 1996.


His experience prompted him to write his senior thesis on immigration and Catholic education.  After reviewing masses of academic studies and doing extensive fieldwork of his own, he made the following observation:


On average, Catholic schools benefit students more than public schools do. Catholic schools have a more rigorous academic curriculum, fewer disciplinary problems, and more tight-knit communities. These advantages contribute to “the Catholic school effect” of higher standardized test scores, lower dropout rates, increased graduation rates, greater opportunities for higher education, and even higher future wages. Inner-city blacks and Latinos benefit the most: the Catholic school effect is statistically higher among this disadvantaged group than among suburban whites. Catholic schools have the most success educating students who are least likely to succeed.


What’s the secret of the Catholic schools?  You can sum it up in three words:  commitment, responsiveness and engagement.


Commitment means that education is part of the church’s mission.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, American Catholicism’s rallying cry was: “Build the school first!”  That is, when a parish had limited funds, the school had priority over the church building.  A perfect example is right here at St. Clement’s: the structure we’re in right now did not open its doors until 1967.  For generations, the parish had no separate church building, and Mass took place downstairs in the school.  My mother, my sisters, and I all made our First Communion in the basement of the building next door.  Parishioners didn’t complain because everybody believed that the education came before convenience.  That powerful message suffused everything that went on in St. Clement’s Church and School.


Responsiveness means that Catholic schools have more independence and less bureaucracy than public schools.  The lines of responsibility are clear: whether things go right or wrong, everybody can see who’s responsible. And with less red tape, Catholic schools also have more flexibility.  For instance, when I was a sophomore, Sister Patricia Hepp noticed that I was using my study hall time to sit in the back of the juniors’ American History class. Even then, I loved the subject, and I enjoyed Sister Patricia’s lively teaching style.  After a while, she said I could take the class for credit – and that was that.  At a public school, such a move would have required reams of paperwork, if it had been possible at all.


Engagement means getting parents involved in education, as Robert noted in his thesis.  In part, engagement consists of making a virtue of necessity, since money is always tight in Catholic schools.  I see from your web site that engagement is an essential part of the school’s philosophy – as it was when I went here.  During my junior year, the French classes were ready to take a field trip to Montreal .  The day before the bus was going to leave, Sister Kathleen got snowbound at a religious retreat, and she had all the money.  (Credit cards were less common then.)  That wasn’t the end of the story.  My dad and Joe Natale’s dad both kept a lot of cash at home, which they lent to the classes so the trip could go ahead.  Again, you simply couldn’t do something like that at a public school.


The engagement of the parents has less tangible benefits, too.  Whatever you do at school, you know that they’re standing behind you.  When you stumble, they help you get back up.  When you succeed, they cheer you on.  That helps.  A lot.


So with your graduation from this school, you’re gaining a great advantage in life.  You can commemorate this advantage in many ways.  One will come in future years when you get fundraising appeals by phone and mail.  Answer – and be generous!


There are other ways.  Here’s one of mine.  College professors wear academic regalia to commencements, convocations, and other ceremonies.  The color and design of the robe depend on where you went to graduate school.  And for a cap, most of us wear a plain black mortarboard.  Mine has an additional touch: my purple and gold tassel from St. Peter’s High School, class of 1973.  I wear it as a reminder of how much I owe this school.


However you choose to do it, always remember where you come from – because you come from a very good place.


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