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NEWS FEATURE: After a dip, Catholic school enrollment, constructiong rising again

c. 1998 Religion News Service CHICAGO _ After years of plunging enrollment, the nation’s Catholic schools are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, sparked in part by affluent, post-baby boomer parents demanding a morality-based education for their children. In the past three decades, Catholic school enrollment had dropped by 51 percent. But in the last seven […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

CHICAGO _ After years of plunging enrollment, the nation’s Catholic schools are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, sparked in part by affluent, post-baby boomer parents demanding a morality-based education for their children.

In the past three decades, Catholic school enrollment had dropped by 51 percent. But in the last seven years, the number of children attending those schools has risen by nearly 5 percent, or 100,000 _ mostly in the suburbs, according to the Washington-based National Catholic Education Association.

“The Catholic population of today is really looking for schools that provide a value-based education,” said Robert Kealey, executive director of the NCEA’s department of elementary schools. “Parents are willing to not only sacrifice and build a new school, but also pay the tuition to have their kids there.”

After a 30-year freeze on Catholic school construction, 40 news schools have opened in the past two years. Competition for classroom seats in suburban Chicago is so fierce that three Cook County Catholic parishes plan to erect a $10 million regional elementary school; they won final approval last month from the Chicago Archdiocese.

Norman Ridder, superintendent of Denver’s Catholic schools, says nearly all of the new schools built in the city’s suburbs in the last five years are filled to capacity. Almost all have waiting lists and several are planning to expand, he said.

“Parents want to hold their kids in Catholic schools as long as they can,” Ridder said, pointing to talks under way to build a six-parish Catholic high school in the city’s northern suburbs.

Three new schools have been built in the Fall River Diocese in Massachusetts, bringing the number of Catholic schools in the area just south of Boston to 36. Already, all three have waiting lists. The diocese says it is considering building both a regional elementary school and a high school.

But that growth is not mirrored in these and other cities’ inner cities, where Catholic schools once flourished and defined the identity of ethnic neighborhoods in places like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

In the 1950s, Catholic schools flanked practically every other corner in Chicago’s neighborhoods. A Lithuanian parish and its school stood on one corner, an Italian parish and its school on another. Classes were taught in the native languages of the parishioners, and the schools were cultural hubs for many immigrant families.

Here, in the largest Catholic school system in the country, more than 50 parochial elementary and high schools have closed in the last decade, most in the inner city. Six more of the system’s 322 schools are slated to shutter their doors at the end of this school year.

In a little more than two months, Shenita Brown will walk the stained sea-green carpet floors of St. Basil’s Catholic School for the last time. Shenita, 9, is only in the fourth grade. But she knows what this red-brick school has meant to her southside Chicago neighborhood.

It’s been shelter from the gun-wielding gangs that pace the sidewalks of Garfield Street, just in front of the school. And it has been a place where teachers really know every family, and the families are bound to the school.

“I’m mad, because I love this school. My mom loved this school. We all loved this school,” Shenita said in her dusty classroom.

At its peak in the 1970s, St. Basil’s enrollment topped 400 students. Now it is 152. The percentage of minorities in Catholic elementary and high schools has more than doubled to 25 percent since 1971. St. Basil’s, once a fiercely Irish school, is now all black.

In the last decade, Catholic school closings totaled 12 in both New Orleans and Philadelphia, 11 in Los Angeles, 22 in New York City’s archdiocese, and 12 in the Brooklyn diocese.

“As Catholics became more mainstream and more Americanized, their school affiliations became less important,” said Denis Doyle, a Hudson Institute fellow focusing on education reform.

Chicago is like many cities across the country: As Catholic immigrants became more prosperous, they moved into its suburbs, leaving behind schools that new and poorer residents _ mostly blacks and Latinos _ could not afford to maintain.

Even though most are Protestant, African-American families for years have sacrificed to send their children to Catholic schools as an alternative to public education. As Latinos, most of whom are Catholic, move up the economic ladder, they are expected to enroll in urban Catholic schools in larger numbers.

“Many poor inner-city folks can’t afford the high tuition, and bishops are less willing to use collection plates to support the education of non-Catholics,” Doyle said. “Without the funds, some schools have been able to survive on their own. But vouchers will be crucial to keeping these schools alive.”

Such problems are foreign to the sprawling suburbs of Chicago, where Catholic parishes can’t keep up with demand for space in the few parochial schools that exist. Parents of roughly 200 children have signed waiting lists to snag a coveted spot at Naperville’s Saints Peter and Paul, a tony 615-student school where annual tuition starts at $2,500.

“It’s not unusual to receive a dozen calls a year from people whose first child isn’t even born yet,” said Frank Glowaty, the school’s principal. “The first thing they ask is, `When do we register?’ … That gives you an indication that demand for Catholic education is getting stronger.”

To cope with shifting populations, small or money-losing Catholic schools have been merged, and several orders of nuns and priests are building schools that attract students from throughout large metropolitan areas.

“Nowadays, we’re not building parish schools, it’s a regional school. It’s the new trend, and it’s not a terrible burden on any one parish,” said Sister Maria Cirello, a Dominican nun and dean of the University of Portland’s School of Education in Oregon.

Cook County’s planned regional elementary school, for example, will serve three parishes _ St. Elizabeth Seton in Orland Hills, St. Francis of Assisi in Orland Park, and St. Julie Billiart in Tinley Park _ with a total of more than 10,000 families. In those three rapidly growing communities, there is no Catholic school.

DEA END GRAY