Catholic schools are losing students at record rate, hundreds are closing
SAN FERNANDO, Calif .– Catholic schools across the country are struggling to keep the doors open, after a year of pandemic that has left many families unable to afford school fees and the church without additional funds to cover the difference.
At least 209 of the country’s nearly 6,000 Catholic schools have closed over the past year, according to the National Association for Catholic Education. More closures are expected this summer, and some schools have turned to GoFundMe in an attempt to stay open.
Nationwide, Catholic school enrollments fell 6.4% at the start of this school year, the biggest drop in a single year since the NCEA began tracking this data in the 1970s.
Urban dioceses have been particularly affected: enrollment in schools run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles fell 12% at the start of this school year. In the Archdiocese of New York, enrollment was down 11%.
As enrollments have been declining for decades, the pandemic has added to the challenges schools already face, Catholic education officials said. The percentage of the population who identify as Catholic is declining, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Charter schools and home education networks now attract students who might once have attended Catholic schools. Tuition in Catholic schools, although still cheaper than most private schools, has averaged about $ 4,800 for elementary school and $ 10,000 for high school.
For many low-income families served by Catholic schools, especially in urban areas, the cost became too high once the pandemic struck and the economy collapsed. In Boston, 11 of the Archdiocese’s 111 schools closed this year.
“They were serving the populations hardest hit by the economic shutdown,” said Tom Carroll, Superintendent of the Archdiocese of Boston. When schools have struggled financially in recent years, he added, the archdiocese could help them stay afloat. This was not possible during the pandemic, as in-person services were interrupted and donations plummeted. “Because all the entities of the Catholic Church were under extraordinary stress at the same time, no one could bail out anyone,” Mr. Carroll said.
Catholic schools are among a multitude of nonprofits and businesses struggling to survive the pandemic. In retail, airlines and higher education, many entities have been hit by cutbacks, bankruptcies and closures.
When schools closed last spring, Catholic education officials said, many families did not want to continue paying tuition fees for distance learning.
Many Catholic schools have resumed in-person teaching more quickly than neighboring public schools. About 85% of Catholic schools were open in person on any given day that school year, according to the NCEA. This reopening has helped increase enrollment by 1.6% since September, but not enough to offset the drop in initial enrollments at the start of the school year.
Even before the pandemic hit, around 100 Catholic schools were closing each year, according to the NCEA. In 1970, some 4.4 million students attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic social science research institute based at Georgetown University. At the time, almost all students were Catholic, and classes were often taught by priests, nuns, or members of male religious orders, who earned much lower salaries than their public school counterparts.
Today, about 1.6 million students attend Catholic schools, according to the NCEA. About 80% of the students are Catholics, and lay teachers have almost completely replaced priests and nuns, driving up costs. Although religious education remains a central element of Catholic education, Mass is no longer part of the daily life of most schools.
“Education is not just about educating a mind, it’s about forming a human mind,” said Paul Escala, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, of the system’s mission.
Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Catholic Education Secretariat of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the main factor behind declining enrollment was declining engagement with the Catholic Church. Catholics make up 20% of the American population, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis, up from 24% in 2007.
“It doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Ms. Donoghue said. “The general priority people place on faith in our society has changed.”
Other factors also contributed to the decline: Enrollment fell sharply in the early 2000s, during the church’s sexual abuse scandal, and fell back after the financial crash of 2008. Some secular families are turned off by the church opposition to abortion – sexual marriage, said Carol Ann MacGregor, vice-provost at Loyola University of New Orleans. Meanwhile, more devout Catholics are home-schooling their children, in some cases because they don’t believe Catholic schools are focusing enough on the faith.
Until recently, major declines in Catholic school enrollment were concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, where a shrinking percentage of the population remains engaged with the church.
But enrollments are also declining in parts of the West, where the Catholic population is more stable. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to the nation’s largest Catholic school system, announced in March that it would close six elementary schools by the end of this year. Several, including St. Catherine’s School in Siena and St. Ferdinand Catholic School, are located in predominantly Latin American areas of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. About 70% of the students in the neighborhood come from low-income families.
“Here in California, we see the reverberations of what our friends in the Northeast have seen,” Mr. Escala said. “We’re starting to twitch.”
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Gina Franco, the mother of a seventh grader in Saint-Ferdinand, has helped lead several protests to keep the school open. She said she was not sure whether to send her son to another Catholic school next year.
“It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth,” said Ms. Franco, who is Catholic. “Do I want to continue to invest money in an entity that I believe has betrayed my child?”
Write to Ian Lovett at [email protected]
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