Come for the Safe, In-Person Learning, Stay for the Quality, Faith-Based Education?

Catholic school leaders are hopeful that students who joined their communities during the height of the pandemic are sticking around for 2021-22 and beyond.

Student wear facemasks as they attend their first day in school after summer vacation at the St. Lawrence Catholic School  in north of Miami, on August 18, 2021.
Student wear facemasks as they attend their first day in school after summer vacation at the St. Lawrence Catholic School in north of Miami, on August 18, 2021. (photo: Chandan Khanna / AFP/Getty)

Catholic-school enrollment has been declining steadily for decades, a trend that appears to have been only exacerbated over the past, pandemic-impacted year: Enrollment figures taken by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year indicated a 6.4% drop across the nation’s 5,981 Catholic schools, the largest single-year decline since the 1970s. 

But look a little closer, and Catholic-school leaders say you’ll see a significant silver lining amidst reports of declining enrollment and school closures. In particular, several dioceses across the country — from Boston to Kansas City, New York City to Yakima — experienced an increase in the number of new students into their schools last year, suggesting the possibility of a rebound for Catholic education, not just this next year but beyond.

“We saw more new families coming into our Catholic schools than we’ve ever seen before, at least in recent history,” shared Lincoln Snyder, president of NCEA.

Among other factors, Snyder said families were attracted to Catholic schools’ commitment to offering safe, in-person learning at a time when many public-school districts were only offering virtual education. The addition of new students happened throughout the year, with NCEA reporting a 1.3% increase in Catholic-school enrollment from the start of the school year to its end. An NCEA survey of nearly 1,400 parents of new students in Catholic schools suggested that a full 36% of students who had previously attended public schools would not have made the switch if not for COVID-19-related restrictions on learning.

Now, as the 2021-22 school year begins, NCEA staff say there are good reasons to think most of these new Catholic-school families will keep their kids enrolled in Catholic schools, even after the worst of the pandemic has hopefully subsided.

NCEA’s report found that 86% of parents of new students said their children had a positive academic, faith and social experience in their first year at a Catholic school. Eighty-one percent were definitely planning on reenrolling their children at their Catholic school, with another 16% considering the possibility at the time the survey was conducted. 

Among parents who made the switch from public to Catholic because of the pandemic, 68% planned on reenrolling and 29% were considering the option, with only 3% not planning on reenrolling.

“I think this pandemic has shown that we’re not a secret, and we’re accessible to everyone,” said Annie Smith, NCEA’s research director, referring to the claim that Catholic schools are the Church’s “best-kept secret.” 

“And once families are in our schools, they want to stay there.”


Early Returns

Although Catholic-school leaders are excited by the infusion of new students over the past year, most dioceses will have to wait until enrollment figures are released later in the fall to see how many have chosen to come back and how that will impact Catholic schools going forward.

But for early returns, Snyder points to the Diocese of Sacramento, California, where he had served as superintendent of Catholic schools for six years prior to taking his position with NCEA this past summer.

Sacramento saw a 10% drop in enrollment between fall 2019 and 2020, which Snyder attributes primarily to economic disruption caused by the pandemic, as families were forced to relocate or couldn’t afford tuition. At the same time, the diocese’s schools also saw a 5% increase in the number of new students at the start of the 2020-21 school year and continued to gain new enrollees over the following months.

Now, with students headed back to school in Sacramento, Snyder says enrollment numbers are a full 3% higher today than they were in fall 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak began.

On the opposite coast, the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, which actually saw a 2% overall increase in enrollment last year, is also reporting strong numbers as the current school year gets underway. Ninety-five percent of students who joined diocesan schools last year have reenrolled, and diocesan officials report an additional 7% increase in enrollment for 2021-22. The 9% increase over the past two years is a record for the diocesan school system.

“We experienced such demand, we had to accelerate classroom construction and expansion at several schools to accommodate more students,” shared Superintendent Gregory Monroe, who said the entire school system embraced an “all-in” mentality to provide in-person instruction as safely as possible. The diocese also froze spending in certain areas so it could provide an additional $1 million in financial aid for those experiencing pandemic-related hardships, a factor that helped parents hit economically by COVID-19 restrictions keep their kids in Catholic schools. 

Steven DeRose and his wife, Kim, enrolled their two children at St. Patrick’s School in Charlotte midway through last school year and says the family “couldn’t have asked for a better experience.” Nolan and Meghan are both back at the Catholic school this fall.

“[The midyear switch] would not have been possible if not for the welcoming staff and teachers, as well as the families,” he told the Catholic News Herald, the Diocese of Charlotte’s newspaper. “They fit right in and quickly became part of the St. Pat’s family.”

Monroe says the diocese and its schools were intentional about their outreach to new families, regularly seeking their feedback and striving to make them feel welcome.

“Our focus on collegiality, fortitude, charity and Christian community helped create a culture of trust, credibility and goodwill — giving us great momentum this year,” he said. “As we begin our second year of educating children during a pandemic, we will pursue our mission to provide a holistic, faith-based education safely and in person, so that we help families mold students into virtuous disciples of Jesus Christ with salvation as the ultimate goal.”


Deeper Foundation

Catholic schools may have been able to welcome more new students than normal due to the unique circumstances sparked by the pandemic, but school leaders are quick to point out that the basis for the trend goes beyond Catholic schools offering in-person education while their public-school counterparts did not.

“This was an opportunity for families who always wanted to check us out to tour building and see what we’re all about,” Annemarie Vega, director of enrollment at the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told her organization’s publication. The archdiocese welcomed more than 1,000 new students to K-8 classrooms alone last year

“Now we are hearing many say they wish they had come sooner,” said Vega.

Emily Dahdah, director of educational quality in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools office, adds that local Catholic schools’ commitment to providing a safe, in-person learning experience for students helped highlight “the love and the care for individual students and their families, and the overall commitment to educational quality and excellence” that’s at the heart of what Catholic schools offer.

“That’s what families have been looking for, and they were able to see that in a more manifest way,” she told the Register.

In fact, at one local K-12 Catholic school, enrollment continued to increase last year largely unrelated to COVID-19-related transfers.

“The main reason we have had increases the past 15 years is our reputation as a strong, faithful Catholic school,” said Kevin Ferdinandt, headmaster of St. Agnes Catholic School in St. Paul, whose enrollment will increase by another 4.3% this year. “Most of our incoming families are interested in getting their children into an excellent Catholic school that features faith, reason and virtue,” as opposed to merely in-person instruction.

The NCEA survey reinforces that what parents ultimately value in a Catholic school goes beyond providing safe instruction during a difficult year. In fact, parents of new students who indicated that the best part of their Catholic school was the safe environment were the least likely to think tuition was a good investment.

The study states, “When schools can offer caring teachers, strong academics and character building, families feel their money is an investment and worth reenrolling.”