New research shows that a group of poor and marginalized students attending Catholic schools had remarkably higher retention and graduation rates than their peers did in public schools.

The pilot study, conducted by the Loyola Marymount University (LMU) School of Education, focused on a particular set of Los Angeles Catholic school students who received tuition funding from the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) between 2001 and 2005. Surveys were conducted with the students, their families and the principals to understand what it was that made a difference in a Catholic school for those most “at risk.”

The study followed 603 students from eighth to ninth grade and 205 students from ninth grade to high school graduation, at nearly 30 different schools throughout Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Of the 603 eighth-grade students, 100 percent continued to ninth grade. Of the 205 students who continued with Catholic Education Foundation tuition support into high school, 98 percent graduated.

This was said to be the first time the Catholic Education Foundation opened its records to a university and provided the Catholic school data in such detail.

Of the 205 students tracked throughout high school, 98 percent graduated with a diploma. Based on these results, the graduation rate for Catholic Education Foundation-supported Catholic schools is almost 35 percent higher than graduation rates for public schools in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara from that same year.

“This research indicates how essential Catholic schools are to the future of Los Angeles,” said Shane P. Martin, dean of the LMU School of Education and co-author of the study. “The CEF and Catholic schools provide a model for effectively educating marginalized students and improving graduation rates, two critical issues for our L.A. school-age children.”

The Catholic Education Foundation supports families living in or at the threshold of poverty. The 205 high schools students selected for the study primarily represent the most “underserved” students in the Catholic school system in this region and more closely resemble the economic, ethnic and personal backgrounds of their peers in the public schools they would have attended.

“This study tells us Catholic high schools are very successful in educating the poor and undeserved in our Los Angeles area communities,” said Nancy Coonis, superintendent for secondary schools at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “Through the process of participating in this study, our high schools are now capturing more student achievement data, which helps in recruiting students and in raising tuition funding to help those most in need.”

All students selected for this study were considered “at risk” because of low socioeconomic status, which included a cohort of SOS (Save Our Students) students, considered the most “at risk” of all Catholic school students. All students in the study compared by zip code, ethnic background and income levels to students in local public schools located primarily within the Los Unified School District area. A subgroup of the 205 students was part of the SOS Program, which was considered the most “at risk,” and, remarkably, 100 percent of the SOS students graduated from high school.

SOS students may be under the care of guardians, have incarcerated parents, live in shelters and come from abusive family situations. The Catholic school experience is what keeps them focused on the future and provides the environment to learn in a safe, gang-free and drug-free environment, the study shows.

“The results show that Los Angeles Archdiocesan Catholic schools give children born into poverty a 98 percent chance of graduating from high school and a 98 percent chance of going on to college,” said Kathy Anderson, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation. “After seeing these results firsthand, you begin to understand what sort of investment we’re actually making.”