Assessing Catholic Schools
A Few Bright Spots as Recession Deepens Enrollment Woes
BY Jeff Ziegler
January 25-31, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/16/09 at 1:50 PM
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Catholic Schools Week this year brings good news and bad news.
This month first lady Laura Bush praised Catholic schools in Washington, and the Brooklyn Diocese announced that it will close 14 schools this year.
The good news of new school openings out West is tempered by the bad news of the economic downturn and plummeting enrollment elsewhere.
In its Jan. 12 announcement, the Brooklyn Diocese said enrollment has dropped by a third over the past decade. Over the past four years alone, the diocese has closed 32 schools.
“The full impact of the current economic situation may not be known until we look at enrollment figures for next September,” said Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association.
But there are bright spots in the midst of the decline. “New schools are opening in areas when the school-age population is increasing,” Ristau told the Register, “in the South, Southwest and Far West. Forty-three new schools opened last year.”
One such bright spot is the Diocese of Las Vegas, which constructed a $105 million Catholic high school in 2007 and is developing a master plan for school expansion to serve a Catholic population that has grown by more than 300,000 in the past 10 years.
Even in areas where Catholic school enrollment has been growing, however, the recession is taking its toll. Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., told the Register that “our K-8 enrollment decreased in 2008-9 by 7%. This followed an 11% increase for the previous year.”
The Brooklyn news, coming a month after the neighboring Archdiocese of New York announced enrollment has decreased by 5% in the last year, is just a sample of the downward trend in Catholic primary and secondary education in the East. And the current recession may affect even more dioceses’ ability to provide a Catholic education.
“We’re going to see a big loss because people can’t pay,” New York Cardinal Edward Egan said in December.
“When families need seriously to reduce their spending, tuition for education may be among the first things eliminated from the family budget,” Marie Powell, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education, told the Register.
Catholic education received a boost when outgoing first lady Laura Bush paid a visit to a suburban Washington Catholic school Jan. 13.
“This is my last school visit as first lady of the United States, and I wanted to end my school visit with a terrific school like Little Flower,” she told students in a short speech marking Catholic Schools Week. “Catholic schools have a very long history in the United States. Many of the very first schools in our country for the first little boys and girls that lived in the United States were Catholic schools. You have a long history of both academics and also of making sure American children in Catholic schools learn the values that are important to all of us and that are important to the people of the United States.”
But that history has gone through some rough waters since 1965, when, according to the National Catholic Educational Association, 5.6 million students were educated in almost 13,500 Catholic schools. During the 2007-8 school year, 2.27 million students were educated in 7,378 Catholic schools. Last year, 169 schools closed or were consolidated.
A landmark 2008 White House Domestic Policy Council report — “Preserving a Critical National Asset” — identified several causes of the decline, including “barriers to government aid,” demographic changes, tuition increases and a decrease in vocations to religious communities that had provided “highly committed and inexpensive” teachers. In 1920, 92% of Catholic school teachers were priests or religious; today, only 4% are.
Catholic schools are taking steps to preserve enrollment in the midst of the recession. “Vigorous tuition-assistance programs,” says Powell, are “the best way to stave off a serious enrollment decline.”
Ristau adds that philanthropy must play a large part.
“With average tuition running $3,100 a year for elementary schools and $6,900 for secondary schools, it is important for schools to continue to work to keep Catholic education affordable,” she said.
According to Powell, tuition-assistance programs are often funded by diocesan foundations that seek donations and by diocesan policies that spread Catholic education costs “to all parishes in a diocese, not just those with schools.”
Going the Extra Mile
Other efforts exist to keep Catholic school affordable.
The Extra Mile Foundation, whose board of directors includes two dozen prominent business and community leaders, raises funds for diocesan schools in Pittsburgh. The Rochester, N.Y.-based Catholic Education Foundation, whose advisory board includes Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and 10 other bishops, provides high school scholarships to students throughout the nation and offers faculty workshops to strengthen schools’ Catholic identity.
“Catholic secondary schools are pricing themselves out of the reach of the middle class,” said Father Peter Stravinskas, the noted author who serves as the foundation’s executive director.
Father Stravinskas told the Register that “Catholic schools must become once again the moral and financial responsibility of the entire Catholic community, not simply the burden to be borne by parents using them or by parishes sponsoring them.”
Parents are also working together to preserve Catholic schools. “We have a lot of resolve here on Staten Island to keep our Catholic schools alive,” says Barbara Bortle-Gainey, co-president of the Staten Island, N.Y., Federation of Catholic School Parents. “Certainly, the principals and parents are willing to put up a good fight.”
Bortle-Gainey told the Register that state government actions are threatening the viability of Catholic schools: Last month, New York Gov. David Paterson proposed a budget cut that would eliminate $62 million in reimbursements to Catholic schools for state-mandated service costs.
Such actions underscore both the need for Catholics to lobby state governments on behalf of Catholic schools and the challenges posed by the nation’s secular culture. “With the increasing attacks on religious and moral values,” says Father Stravinskas, “Catholic schools will assume an even greater importance than ever, as our children will need to be prepared to function in a society which is overtly hostile to religion.”
Jeff Ziegler is based
in Ellenboro, North Carolina.
Laura Bush on Catholic Schools
First lady Laura Bush paid a visit to the Little Flower School in Bethesda, Md., Jan. 13 to mark Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 25-31. Her comments follow.
Thank you all. I’m very happy to be here today. One of the things I’ve been most interested in over the last eight years while I’ve had the chance to live in the White House is education, because like the archbishop said, I was a teacher. I was also a school librarian. That’s been my whole career. And I’ve had the chance to visit schools all over the United States and schools in many foreign countries, as well.
So today is my very last school visit while my husband is president. This is my last school visit as first lady of the United States, and I wanted to end my school visit with a terrific school like Little Flower.
Jan. 25 through Jan. 31 is National Catholic Schools Week in the United States. That’s the date that — the week that everybody in the United States can thank our Catholic schools for the great work that you do all over our country and all over the world, really. And it’s also a time for us to talk to our leaders about the importance of Catholic education.
Catholic schools have a very long history in the United States. Many of the very first schools in our country for the first little boys and girls that lived in the United States were Catholic schools. You have a long history of both academics and also of making sure American children in Catholic schools learn the values that are important to all of us and that are important to the people of the United States.
So this is an early celebration of that National Catholic Schools Week, and it is an opportunity for me to thank you all, to thank everybody, involved in Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Washington and also to give you thanks on behalf of President Bush.
Catholic schools have a special commitment in inner cities. Many Catholic schools in the United States are taking as a special mission their responsibility to educate disadvantaged students, and I want to give you my special thanks for that and my encouragement to continue that important mission in our inner cities.
Then the other reason that I’m here today — and that is to congratulate Little Flower School on being chosen as a Blue Ribbon School. Have you all seen that great big blue ribbon right here in your hallway? Did you know that only 50 non-public schools in all of the United States were chosen as Blue Ribbon Schools? So that’s a really wonderful accomplishment. And that means that your school — that in your schools, students are really learning, you’re succeeding in every way, and so I want to give you special congratulations to the teachers, to the administration, to the faculty, but especially to the students at Little Flower School. I want to applaud you.
Congratulations on being such smart kids. You might want to know that in the archdiocese about 97% of children who go to Catholic schools go on to higher education, go on to college. And that’s a very, very good record and very good statistic. So congratulations to all of you, and thank you very much, archbishop. Thank you, sister, for letting me visit your school. And thank you for the opportunity to come congratulate all of you on that great blue ribbon that we see out there in the hall.
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