KANSAS CITY, Kan. (CNS) -- When University of Kansas professor Diane McDermott started to test her hypothesis that minority children had less hope for the future than other schoolchildren, there was one variable she forgot to factor in: Catholic education.
McDermott conducted a statistical survey of about 1,200 schoolchildren -- both public and private -- in northeast Kansas.
One of the most surprising results of the study was that those in Catholic schools had significantly higher hopes for their future than did their public school counterparts, despite the fact that the Catholic schoolchildren came from the same lower socioeconomic background as other children surveyed.
These high hopes, the associate professor of counseling psychology discovered, usually translated into higher grades.
Initially McDermott, who is a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park, expected her research to reveal differing degrees of hope, depending on a child's socioeconomic status. So she targeted schools in lower income areas.
In addition to developing a statistical way to measure hope, she and her research partner also created a way to test whether children from impoverished backgrounds could be taught to hope for a better future.
To create a valid sample, the researchers built a pool of 1,200 schoolchildren from elementary schools spread throughout northeast Kansas. About 500 of those tested were in Catholic schools.
As an afterthought, McDermott decided to carry her investigation a step further and test whether a statistical difference existed between public and Catholic students.
``I didn't expect there would be any difference,'' said McDermott, a professor at the University of Kansas for 29 years. ``But lo and behold, there was a difference -- with Catholic school kids coming out significantly higher in hope. To us, it was pretty amazing.''
McDermott said she cannot explain the difference with statistical certainty, since she built nothing into the testing to control for that variable.
``I wish I could know and find out,'' she told The Leaven, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City.
But when she approached public school officials with a request to study children for the influence of spirituality on hopefulness, they would not allow it.
But she does feel that -- based on her research and on anecdotal evidence such as interviews of Catholic school students, teachers and administrators -- she can come to some pretty safe conclusions as to why Catholic schoolchildren evidence such high hopes.
``I think it probably does have something to do with faith,'' she said. ``Catholic school kids -- this is partly taught through the faith -- believe that they are not alone in the world. You walk in the school and there's a statue of Jesus or a saint and you have the sense that you're watched and cared about.''
In addition, she said, parents of Catholic schoolchildren may have a higher stake in their kids' education than the general population because they have consciously chosen to give their child a religious education and are paying tuition to do so.
Secondly, she said, discipline as well as expressions of love are more evident in Catholic schools.
``The difference in the classrooms was pretty amazing,'' she told The Leaven. ``The Catholic kids are ready, quiet, have their pencils ready. They're attentive, disciplined and they ask very polite and very good questions. But if you go into a public school, you may or may not get the kids' attention.''
To measure hope in grade-school-age children, McDermott and her doctoral student researchers created a six-question Hope Scale Questionnaire.
It asks children to respond to statements such as the following: ``I can think of many ways to get the things in life that are most important to me.'' In addition, the researchers balanced the children's own perceptions of themselves with observations of teachers who were asked similar questions about the students.
The researchers also developed ``interventions'' to test McDermott's hypothesis that hope can be taught.
The interventions consisted of telling stories about children with ``high hopes'' as a way to teach a principle. They found that the hope scores increased dramatically following the hope-teaching sessions, proving that hope can, indeed, be taught.
Does the fact that Catholic schoolchildren -- even of a lower socioeconomic status -- have higher hopes for their future than other children come as a surprise to Catholic educators?
Not to people like Mary Delac, principal of All Saints School in downtown Kansas City. ``I would be more surprised to find that it wasn't true,'' she said.
``It helps our kids to be surrounded by people who believe in them and tell them they can overcome any obstacle -- whether it's race, income, gender, language or whatever. They hear that message a lot. It's the message of the Gospel.''