ST. CLOUD, Minn. — When parents send their children back to school this fall, they will find far more schooling options available to them now than when they were kids.

Catholic schools and Catholic home-based education are experiencing notable increases. Following decades of decline, Catholic school enrollment in the United States has increased in recent years. Likewise, home-based education in general, according to the National Home Education Research Institute, has been growing by as much as 15% per year.

The recent popularity in Catholic schooling has been aided by a geographic realignment, particularly in suburban areas. Over the past seven years, enrollment has increased by approximately 86,000 students. Nearly half of the nation's 8,146 Catholic schools report they have waiting lists, and more than 300 Catholic schools have opened in the last decade alone.

“New schools are occurring in areas where there are new Catholic populations who are asking for them,” commented Michael Guerra, president of the National Catholic Education Association. This trend is evident in dioceses such as St. Augustine, Fla., Cincinnati and St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Parents are attracted to Catholic-based education for several reasons.

“As our public schools become increasingly secularized, many people of faith want to talk about God and want to try to live with that as part of their educational experience,” said Todd Flanders, headmaster of Providence Academy. Opening with 180 students this fall, Providence Academy is one of seven new Catholic schools that have opened in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis within the last two years.

The low teacher-to-pupil ratio, student safety, and the emphasis on academics attracts others. “Students receive a far supeattracts others. “Students receive a far superior education,” said Kathleen Calgaro, of San Bernadino, Calif.

A former public and Catholic high school teacher, Calgaro sends her two daughters to Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School. “I was concerned about discipline [in the public schools] and wanted my daughters to receive a moral and religious background,” she said of her decision to choose a Catholic school.

Calgaro's daughter, Amy, explained how a fellow student left the Catholic school for a year to attend the public school and then returned the following year.

“The girl said that the students didn't know their addition or subtraction, while we were studying multiplication in the same grade,” said Amy, who is entering the sixth grade.

Independent Catholic Schools

Another trend is the rise of the private Catholic school that operates independently from the diocese. Trinity Grammar and Prep is one example. The first through 12th grade college-prep school was founded in 1995 by a group of Napa Valley, Calif. families.

“Our school started with 50 students,” said Tony Ryan, president of the board of directors. “Today we have 140.” Unusual among Catholic schools, Trinity offers daily Mass for their students.

“We're interested in their academic and spiritual growth. Like a lot of parents, we wanted to have more of a personal involvement with our children's spiritual and academic formation. Our graduating seniors have an average SAT of 1250, and 99 percent of our graduates have gone on to college,” added Ryan.

In addition, the National Consultants for Education, affiliated with the Legionaires of Christ, offers services to a growing network of approximately 30 independent Catholic schools across the U.S. and Canada.

Tom McInnis serves as principal for one of the schools — Cedarcrest Academy, located in the Twin Cities' suburb of Maple Grove. This school, too, grew rapidly — from 11 students four years ago, to 140 this year.

“I would attribute the growth to three factors,” said McInnis. “Children at Cedarcrest are physically safe. They are protected spiritually, and I will never allow an individual or a small group of individuals to interfere with the learning environment of a classroom. That is something I never could have said, as a public high school teacher.”

Home-based Education

For still others, home-based education is their choice.

“The most important reason for home schooling is the opportunity for individualized instruction,” said David McClamrock, a home schooling parent from Fort Wayne, Ind.

Home education is custom-made, he said, “in the selection of the curriculum, in the manner of presentation, and in the evaluation of your children's performance,”

According to Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, between 1.5 and 1.9 million students were home-educated last year. “If you go back and examine numbers from 1979-80, you'll see that no other form of education has grown like that. No matter what kind of spin you put on it, that is phenomenal,” commented Ray.

“Two months after the Columbine shooting, our applications increased from 700 to 1,400 members,” added Richard Jefferson, director of media relations with the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Maureen Wittman, author of A Catholic Homeschool Treasury, gave her reasons for teaching at home succinctly: “I believe that our Catholicism should permeate our everyday lives. It is for that reason that I believe in Catholic education. My own children's Catholic school happens to be their home,” she said.

No matter what method of instruction is chosen, it is obvious that increasing numbers of parents are making considerable sacrifices to provide a Catholic education for their children.

The Church calls parents to do nothing less. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, “The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute. The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable” (No. 2221).