Struggling Catholic schools strategize to draw new students

CHICAGO (Reuters) - For years, headlines about Catholic schools in the United States have told gloomy tales of falling enrollment and multiple closings.

A worker walks through the reception area at Leo Catholic High School in Chicago, Illinois February 14, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young

Between 2000 and 2013, 2,090 U.S. Catholic schools closed or consolidated and enrollment fell 24.5 percent, according to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). In places like Chicago’s Leo Catholic High School for boys, student numbers have plummeted from 1,200 students in the 1950s to 157 this year. In New York, the Catholic Archdiocese plans to close 24 schools.

This decline has implications for public schools throughout the nation, say Catholic school supporters. According to the NCEA, the 2 million U.S. students they serve save the nation approximately $21 billion a year in public school costs.

But while schools are closing in northeastern and Great Lakes cities, they’re expanding in places like Indiana, Texas, North Carolina and Florida, which have growing Catholic populations, governments willing to support private school, or both.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, Cardinal Gibbons High School has expanded three times since 1994 and now has two facilities for 1,240 students.

“Enrollment in this area is very, very strong,” said diocesan superintendent Michael Fedewa. When he came to Raleigh 19 years ago there were so few Catholics it was considered “missionary territory.” The diocese has since opened eight new schools.

Nationally, 32 percent of Catholic schools have waiting lists, showing the mismatch between space and demand.


Catholic schools took root in the United States when 19th century church officials, responding to anti-Catholic sentiment in public schools, urged every parish to build its own school. Enrollments peaked in the early 1960s, when there were more than 5.2 million students.

Staffed by religious orders like the Jesuits, the schools gained reputations for discipline and academic rigor. Catholic schools outscore public schools in reading and math significantly, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For eighth-grade reading, for example, Catholic school scores were 7.2 percent higher, the NAEP found.

Graduates joke about getting smacked by nuns but brag about their education. “In my time as an editor, I could always pick out which reporters went to Catholic school, because they could spell,” said Leo President Dan McGrath, a former Chicago Tribune editor.

Reasons for declining enrollment include climbing costs and demographic changes - smaller families and the departure of parents with children from northeastern and Great Lakes cities for the suburbs or for jobs in the south and west, according to Catholic school experts. The clergy sex-abuse scandal hasn’t helped either.

The expansion of charter schools, which offer an alternative to traditional public schools and charge no tuition, have also hurt Catholic schools. About one in three students gained by charter schools in New York State came at the expense of Catholic schools, according to a new study by Abraham M. Lackman, scholar in residence at the Graduate School of Education, Fordham University.

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Where Catholic schools are growing, it’s often because of innovative ideas, voucher systems, and outreach programs for growing numbers of Hispanic immigrant children.

Money is a big problem. The number of religious sisters has declined from nearly 180,000 in 1965 to 54,000 in 2012, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA. That has meant a large loss of cheap labor. Only 3.2 percent of the professionals at today’s Catholic schools are clergy or in religious orders, compared with 90.1 percent in 1950, the NCEA said.

“They’re replacing low-paid nuns with medium-paid lay people,” said Charles Zech, an economics professor at Villanova University near Philadelphia and a specialist in church finances. Whereas lay teachers receive modest salaries, nuns receive “very small” annual stipends, room and board in the convent, and no pension, Zech explained.

Another issue is that Catholics on average give 1.2 percent of their income to the church, compared with 2.5 percent given by Protestants, Zech said. “At least since the mid-60s, we’ve seen a pattern of Catholics giving half of Protestants.”

Weekly church attendance among Catholics fell from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. The clergy abuse scandal, which cost the U.S. church about $3 billion in settlements, and disagreement over the ban on contraception helped drive some people away, according to a Pew study. Less in the collection plate means less to subsidize school tuition.

Catholic school experts worry that soaring tuition is pricing out the low- and middle-income children the Church is supposed to serve. Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, school superintendent for the Chicago archdiocese, recalled how in the mid-1960s she apologized to her parents because her high school tuition rose to $470 (almost $3,000 in today’s dollars).

Now tuition averages $3,673 a year for Catholic grade school and $9,622 for high school. The K-12 cost for private school averages $20,612, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. McCaughey said some families are afraid to even consider Catholic school, though scholarships are available.

School officials hope smart planning can save schools. In New York, the diocese is trying to improve its finances by closing underused schools, creating regional centers of control and bringing in help from lay experts for “our Achilles’ heels” - marketing, finance and building management, said Timothy J. McNiff, school superintendent for the New York archdiocese.

Right-sizing has been painful. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the New York Times she was “heartbroken” that her old Bronx grade school, Blessed Sacrament, would close. The Philadelphia archdiocese closed 34 schools last year.

The Chicago archdiocese will close five schools this year but has seen signs of a turnaround, with city elementary enrollment up three years in a row. McCaughey said young parents in gentrifying neighborhoods and a seven-day public school strike last fall are helping to boost the numbers.


In Indiana, a voucher program for low- and middle-income students has been a boon for Catholic schools. In the archdiocese of Indianapolis alone, the number of voucher students more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, to 2,328.

“We’ve had to open up new classrooms,” said Gina Fleming, assistant superintendent for schools. “We’re finally able to provide a desired Catholic education to families who wanted it all along.”

Teachers’ unions oppose vouchers because they drain money from public schools, and such a program is unlikely in Democrat-majority states like New York and Illinois. Catholic school officials see more hope in programs that allow individuals and corporations to allocate part of their state taxes toward private-school scholarships. Fourteen such programs exist in 11 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Catholic schools also are pushing for more private charity to help needy students.

“We try to turn nobody away for financial reasons. If they really want to come here, we try to find a way to make it work,” said Leo’s McGrath, whose desk is piled with letters to potential donors. One selling point: over the last five years, every Leo senior has graduated and gotten into college.


Many dioceses have seen an increase in the Catholic population due to Hispanic immigrants. But while Hispanics make up nearly 40 percent of U.S. Catholics, they account for just 14 percent of Catholic school students.

The problem is partly cultural. While U.S. Catholic schools have long taken children of various income levels, the schools are seen by many Latin American immigrants as only for the rich. So schools have to let Hispanic families know they’re wanted, and explain that scholarships are available.

“You can’t do that by giving them a pamphlet,” said Raleigh’s Fedewa. “You have to build relationships.”

The diocese of Venice, Florida, worked directly with the pastor of a majority-Hispanic parish. He in turn reached out to 10 leading parish families to spread the word about Catholic school.

Bringing in Hispanics means being more culturally aware - from hanging images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s famous icon, in the hall to having more chairs outside the office to accommodate extended families, said Kathleen Schwartz, diocesan education director.

The other way to expand Catholic schools is by offering innovative, competitive ideas, said Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, head of the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College.

She cited St. Jerome grade school in Hyattsville, Maryland, a school that’s not in a wealthy area but is attracting parents willing to pay for a classical education that includes Latin and rhetoric.

Another example is Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Washington, D.C., where students work one day a week at a designated job partner. This helps teach real-world skills and pay for tuition.

Above all, according to Lorraine Ozar, director of the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University, schools must be true to their religious function: “to communicate the person of Jesus and the worldview that comes out of Gospel values ... We need that kind of school now even more than we did before.”

Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Arlene Getz and Prudence Crowther