The total enrollment in the 22 Catholic schools in the diocese for the 2017-18 school year is 6,249. That figure is down about 1.7 percent from the 2016-17 school year, although most other dioceses in New England saw enrollment losses of 5 to 7 percent.
FALL RIVER — The Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fall River have not been immune to the same demographic and social factors that have resulted in dozens of parishes being closed or merged over the years.
Enrollment has been dropping and operating deficits increasing. From 2011 to 2015, the Catholic elementary school deficits’ collectively grew from $200,000 to $1.1 million. Only four of 17 elementary schools were in the black in the 2015 school year.
Since 2008, Fall River alone has seen the closings of St. Anne’s School, Notre Dame School and Sts. Peter and Paul School. In 2014, Seton Academy, a private Catholic school that was operated independent of the diocese, also shuttered its doors.
And in New Bedford, the closing of some schools led to a merger with others; in the North End, St. Joseph-St.Therese joined with St. Mary's to become All Saints School in 2010.
“As we look at today’s context, things are much different today than they were even 10 to 15 years ago in terms of what you have to do as it relates to mission and what you need to do as it relates to education,” said Steve Perla, the diocesan superintendent of schools.
Since shortly before Perla, a longtime veteran in Catholic school administration, arrived in Fall River in June 2016, the diocese, under the leadership of Bishop Edgar da Cunha, has been examining ways to make its schools financially sustainable and at the same time affordable for families who want to send their children to Catholic schools.
Finding that balance is difficult, because of ever rising operating costs and the need to pay decent salaries to lay teachers (a concern that did not exist when priests and religious sisters taught classes), while dealing with the reality that fewer Catholics attend Mass or contribute financially to their parishes and schools.
Some of the steps taken since 2016, which include hiring a marketing director and creating new scholarships for low-income students, are showing some signs of fruition. The total enrollment in the 22 Catholic schools in the diocese for the 2017-18 school year is 6,249. That figure is down about 1.7 percent from the 2016-17 school year, but most other dioceses in New England saw enrollment losses of 5 to 7 percent.
“We’ve begun to stop the hemorrhaging,” Perla said.
The diocese has been implementing some of the recommendations made in a November 2016 report issued by the Diocese of Fall River Task Force on Catholic Education.
Among its recommendations, the task force called for:
New strategies to stabilize and grow enrollment
A uniform system-wide process for financial management and reporting
Establishing a new central Catholic School Board to set system-wide policies and to oversee the implementation of the report’s recommendations.
“They’re going to play a very important role,” Perla said of the central school board, which consists of priests, lay professionals and local business leaders.
Fundraising has been a key component of providing financial aid to families and helping schools to make investments in instructional materials. In 2016, the Carney Family Foundation provided a $1 million gift to help with the initial implementation of the task force report. That gift was matched by an additional million dollar contribution from the diocesan Foundation for the Advancement of Catholic Education.
That money has gone into providing Hope and Opportunity scholarships for low-income students in Fall River and New Bedford, as well as grants given to schools to create specialized instructional programs. Other donations have also enabled the diocese to upgrade the WiFi in its schools and to hire a counselor to help students with their emotional-social needs.
All 22 schools in the diocese are developing three-year strategic plans. Noting the changing needs of modern families, Perla added that the diocese is looking to launch a faith-based infant-to-toddler daycare program, and will be encouraging schools in the next couple of years to increase early childhood education from a half-year to a full-year program.
“It will provide a good service to our families that need that sort of care because of their own employment situations,” Perla said.
Meanwhile, difficult changes are still happening. The diocese recently announced that St. Mary’s Primary School in Taunton will close at the end of this school year. Families are being encouraged to enroll at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Taunton. Perla said he believes the move will result “in a stronger Catholic school educational program” for all of the elementary school students in Taunton.
Perla said St. Mary’s needed $2 million worth of capital improvements and had a $2 million operating deficit.
“Anytime you have to close a school, it’s a very important decision and one you don’t do lightly,” Perla said.