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Hard times push Catholic schools toward crisis

In a trend intensified by growing economic troubles, declining enrollment in Catholic schools across the nation is forcing many of those schools to close. Compared to 10 years ago, Catholic school enrollments have plummeted by nearly 20 percent. From New York City to Sacramento, Calif., Catholic schools today are facing the double peril of rising costs and falling revenues.

The total number of students enrolled in U.S. Catholic schools for the 2008-09 school year was 2,192,531, according to data from the National Catholic Educational Association. But the decline has been steady. In the 1998-99 school year, enrollment was 2.6 million, and it was 2.4 million in the 2003-04 school year.

Non-parochial private school enrollment might be declining as well, but nonreligious schools seem to be faring better than Catholic schools.

A spokesman for the National Independent Private Schools Association (NIPSA) said enrollment is “down slightly,” by about 4 percent. NIPSA collects data from its member schools in the fall, so data that might show a change for the 2009-10 school year will not be available until then.

Dwindling enrollment in some Catholic schools might occur if the dominant industry in a particular area fails, said Myra McGovern, director of public information for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), which counts approximately 1,400 schools as members–two-thirds of which have some sort of religious affiliation.

An area such as Detroit, in which the hard-hit auto industry has played host to the majority of the area’s jobs, will probably show lower private school enrollment as families learn to survive on one income, or move elsewhere in search of new jobs, McGovern explained.

The full impact of the current economic recession on private schools might not be clear until this fall. By the time of the market downturn in September and October 2008, enrollment was already set for the year, and many families had already paid full tuition and therefore kept their children enrolled, she said.

Maryland is one state in which Catholic school enrollment is on the downturn. Decisive action must be taken soon to address falling enrollment in Baltimore’s parochial schools, and for a decade, leaders have hoped the situation would turn around, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien said.

But this academic year, enrollment at archdiocese schools is down 5 percent, or approximately 1,200 students, according to the archdiocese. That’s the equivalent of four full schools–and it’s twice the average decline of the previous five years.

“To punt any further would be to lose the school system completely,” O’Brien said. “It’s obvious that some action has to be taken.”

In February, O’Brien began gathering priests and educators to discuss the problem, and he plans to introduce a committee dedicated to finding solutions over the next 18 months.

Leaders want most of all to avoid closing schools, but they’ll also have to look at other painful options, such as consolidation.

Baltimore is facing the same problem as many Catholic school systems across the country, especially in the Northeast, said Mark Gray, research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The schools traditionally served Catholic immigrants concentrated in northeastern cities. As Catholics move to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, school buildings couldn’t follow, he said.

In the suburbs and the South and Southwest, the problem is reversed, with many Catholic schools not having enough seats for their growing communities, Gray said.

Another demographic shift affecting enrollment is a trend toward smaller families, which translates to fewer students, O’Brien said.

Historically, the work of members of religious orders kept costs low for Catholic schools, but now the staffs are mostly lay people, and systems have to keep up with the costs of salaries and health benefits, Gray said.

The worsening economy has exacerbated problems, leaving families with less money to spare for tuition.

“There is a real concern about the future,” Gray said. “Who are Catholic schools for, if the average Catholic family can’t afford tuition? It’s supposed to be accessible to any Catholic family who wants to send their children there.”

Ensuring that schools are accessible geographically and financially is key to increasing enrollment, O’Brien said. But Catholic school systems might find themselves reevaluating their missions.

“Our primary responsibility is to educate our Catholic kids in our tradition,” O’Brien said. “But we also realize we have become kind of a refuge for others, because of the state of public school systems in some areas. So we certainly have an obligation to the common good.”

In nearby Washington, D.C., the archdiocese recently went through a process like the one Baltimore is beginning, holding a convocation on enrollment in October 2007.

One result was the fine-tuning of the archdiocese’s tuition assistance program. Previously, the archdiocese helped needy schools balance budgets, but the new program aimed at retaining and attracting students means money can go toward an education instead of just paying bills, said spokeswoman Susan Gibbs.

The archdiocese spent $940,000 this academic year to retain 311 students and attract 238 new ones, and those families are paying $1.8 million in tuition, Gibbs said.

This academic year, Washington also took the unusual step of converting seven schools to a public charter group, which aims to maintain the standards and values of Catholic schools without focusing on religion. Excluding the number of students lost through the conversion, the city’s Catholic school enrollment was 2 percent lower this year, according to the archdiocese.

“I am very pleased with where our enrollment for schools is,” said Washington archdiocese superintendent Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill. “We’re in a good place right now, and I’m praying we can stay in this good place.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city and the Diocese of Brooklyn are considering a move similar to that of D.C., converting four schools with falling enrollment into publicly funded charter schools without religious instruction. However, state law prohibits converting religious schools into charters.

Because of that state law, the program would require legislative action before it could be put in place, Bloomberg said.

But the mayor said the partnership might be a good fit. City schools are short of space and looking for ways to expand, and Catholic schools have unused space, a dwindling number of students, and a need for new funding.

“When you have a shared interest like that, it is time to sit down and see if there is something you can do to benefit everyone,” Bloomberg said.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said the mayor was effectively throwing a “life preserver” to drowning schools–one he was inclined to grab, even though it would mean an end to the schools’ Catholic tilt.

“Yes, we do have our own value system,” he said. “But we think with charter schools … we can also maintain our value system.” He noted, as did Bloomberg, that the two sides have only just begun talking about how the conversion might work.

“We don’t know how extensive this will be, or even if this is possible, but we are willing to try,” DiMarzio said.

Bloomberg said New York also would consider charter school conversions for other parochial and private schools in the city, and not confine its invitation to Catholics.

Over the past decade, Brooklyn and Queens Catholic schools have seen increased operational costs and declining enrollment, which have threatened their survival. The average household income of a New York City Catholic school student is $32,000. More than 20 percent of Catholic school students in Brooklyn are not Catholic.

Declining enrollment and heavy financial losses are forcing two Catholic grade schools in Minnesota–one in Minneapolis, the other in St. Paul–to close at the end of the 2009-10 school year.

St. Elizabeth Seton School in north Minneapolis and Trinity Catholic School in St. Paul each have an enrollment of about 100 students.

Because of the two closings, about 23 teachers, four administrators and principals, and six school workers will be laid off.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced in March that it would close two more Catholic schools because of declining enrollment.

Saint Benedict elementary school in Philadelphia and Saint Ann elementary school in Bristol closed at the end of the academic year in June.

Only five students re-registered to attend Saint Ann next year after officials announced tuition would be $4,000 per parishioner and $5,000 per non-parishioner.

This past year’s enrollment at Saint Benedict, in Philadelphia’s East Germantown neighborhood, was 164. That number was projected to fall to 150 next year.

Declining enrollment and higher costs also forced all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento, Calif., to close its doors.

In a letter to parents, Loretto High School principal Helen Timothy said only 80 prospective students sat this year for entrance exams that normally draw 175 girls.

The 54-year-old school already had seen enrollment drop from 559 girls three years ago to 389 this year.

Timothy said increased competition from other private and charter schools and rising transportation costs for parents meant the decline was likely to continue. The school closed in June.

Tuition was more than $11,000 per student each year and did not include books, uniforms, athletics, and other programs.

Six Fort Wayne-area Catholic schools have three more years to increase enrollments and improve after Bishop John D’Arcy overruled a recommendation to merge the schools.

The schools will have to meet specific goals such as attracting more students, increasing test scores, and publicizing their finances to parishioners.

The bishop’s decision came after a committee recommended in October that the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese merge the schools because of dwindling enrollment and money.

Diocesan schools superintendent Rev. Stephen Kempinger has said the merger would save the diocese about $1 million annually.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Archdiocese of Baltimore

Archdiocese of Brooklyn

National Association of Independent Schools

National Independent Private Schools Association

National Catholic Educational Association

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