As enrollment in Catholic schools dips across the nation, the Fall River Diocese is taking steps to stop the spiral.
Superintendent of Schools Steve Perla said the Diocese, which has seen enrollment drop by about 2 percent annually for the past five years, is offering scholarships and focusing on attracting Hispanic and Brazilian students.
“Given the current competitive marketplace in which we find ourselves, I think it’s important that when parents pay for Catholic education, it’s an education of value and is affordable,” he said.
Nationally, 96 Catholic schools closed or merged with other schools in the past year, while 20 new Catholic schools opened, including in Missouri, Ohio and New Jersey. The 20 new schools include both newly built schools and schools that consolidated and re-opened under a new configuration.
In Massachusetts, Milford Catholic School, St. Clement School in Medford and St. Anthony School in Fitchburg recently announced they are closing because of declining enrollment.
“Nationwide, there’s obviously been a downward trend in the number of Catholic schools and the number of kids enrolled,” said Nicole Garnett, a senior policy adviser for the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame. “The Northeast and upper Midwest have been hit hardest, where the density of Catholic schools is highest. One thing that’s unique about the urban North is there are a lot of Catholic schools. They’re probably overbuilt in urban areas.”
The Fall River Diocese’s new scholarship program is funded by a $1 million donation from the Carney Family Foundation of New Bedford and a $1 million match from the Diocese’s Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Education.
The pilot program, which Diocese officials hope will help 100 children, is launching in Fall River and New Bedford, with plans to expand to other communities in the future.
The Fall River Diocese has hired a handful of bilingual consultants and has engaged in cultural and community outreach.
Nationally, 67 percent of practicing Catholics between the ages of 18-34 are Latinos, but just 3 percent of Latino families send their children to Catholic schools, a 2009 ACE study found.
“There are opportunities and there is some hope that the leaking is slowing down,” Garnett said. “Recruiting Latinos is a good place to start.”
Six schools in the Fall River Diocese, Perla said, will participate with Notre Dame and the Providence Diocese in an institute focused on increasing Catholic School enrollment among Latino students.
Nationally, Gossart said, Catholic high schools have fared better than Catholic elementary schools in terms of enrollment.
“The vast majority of parents still look at Catholic high school as desirable over public schools or charter schools,” said Heather Gossart, a senior consultant with the National Catholic Educational Association. “Nationally, we’re talking about schools with a 96-100 percent graduation rate and a 93 percent college acceptance rate.”
Catholic schools operate independently of the local public school system. They are not required to administer state standardized exams. While open to students of all faiths — roughly 30 percent of the Boston Archdiocese’s 38,000 students aren’t Catholic — the schools typically include educational instruction in Catholic theology and values.
While overall enrollment has declined significantly in recent years, there are some encouraging signs, Gossart said. Throughout the nation, 27 percent of Catholic schools reported having to put applicants on a waiting list, she said.
“I really do believe the high schools stand on the strong foundation of their own achievement,” she said. “We are optimistic. We are confident in the future of Catholic education in this country. It stands on its own merits.”
WHY THE DROP?
Many factors have contributed to declining enrollment, Catholic education policy experts say.
Over the past several decades, fewer and fewer Catholic men and women have been interested in becoming priests or nuns. Years ago, nuns made up a significant portion of the teaching staff at Catholic schools, but that’s changed as a national shortage of nuns has deepened.
“We didn’t pay the nuns much,” Garnett said, explaining that bringing lay teachers into the fold has led to increased costs at Catholic schools. “Decline in the vocations has led to a dramatic increase in costs and a dramatic increase in tuition. It can be outside of the reach of people with modest means.”
Declining Mass attendance, part of a wider secularization of society, has also exacerbated financial stresses for many schools that are linked to a parish, Gossart said.
“At one time, parishes were a source of significant subsidy to our elementary schools, and many parishes no longer are able to provide that,” Gossart said. “To bridge that gap between education costs and what a parish can provide, tuition has had to go up.”
In some areas, more tuition-free charter schools offer families another alternative to private education, potentially drawing additional would-be students away from Catholic schools, Garnett said.
Victim settlement payments and legal fees stemming from a clergy sex abuse scandal created a major source of financial stress for some U.S. Catholic dioceses, but those payments have not drawn from funding marked for education or other ministries, said Heather Gossart, a senior consultant with the National Catholic Educational Association.
The Boston Archdiocese, for example, has used real estate sales, insurance coverage, self-insurance reserve funds and donations specifically given to fund therapy for abuse survivors to pay legal settlements and fees.
The U.S. Conference of Bishops estimates that from 2004-13, the Church spent more than $2.7 billion on victim settlements, therapy for victims, legal fees and other costs related to allegations of clergy sex abuse of children.
“We are being told, and the financials bear it out, that when you contribute to capital campaigns, donors are assured that not one penny earmarked for education or other ministries is paid out for other uses,” Gossart said.