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Maggie PhillipsAugust 17, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

The first day of school at JSerra High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., was a little over a month away, but Eileen McKeagney was already looking forward to teaching her English II Honors class. After 14 years of teaching at the school and 20 years as a teacher, “the excitement’s still there,” she said over the phone. “Teenagers don’t change that much.” Girls still roll up their uniform skirts to shorten the hem lines, she said with a laugh, something her 81-year-old mother used to do at Catholic school, too.

Teenagers may or may not change, but the world around them has changed, especially in recent years. The school reopened in the fall of 2021 after pivoting to online education in the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and returning to in-person instruction with masks and reduced class sizes for the remainder of the school year in September 2020. Today, JSerra, which enrolls just under 1,300 students, receives a flood of applications each year—far more students than they could ever admit.

Since the reopening, “I just feel a great appreciation, generally speaking,” Ms. McKeagney said, “That the Catholic schools stayed open, that they recognized the value, not just of the child, but of the community.

If the numbers are any indication, many parents shared McKeagney’s appreciation, at least initially. In the immediate wake of ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, Catholic school enrollment spiked. The bump in national enrollment inspired optimism in school choice advocates and Catholic school boosters alike: a 3.7 percent increase from fall 2020 to fall 2021, according to the National Catholic Education Association. However, the most recent N.C.E.A. data indicates that growth slowed to 0.3 percent from fall 2021 to fall 2022, and overall enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels, having dropped by 6.4 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020.


The decline of regular Mass attendance—a trend observed before the 2020 shutdowns—has also continued apace. There is a consensus that many parents were attracted to Catholic schools during the height of the pandemic because almost all remained open for in-person instruction, while public schools were more likely to opt for virtual-only learning. The Covid era has ended, however, leaving a lingering question: If parents left public schools because they were dissatisfied, what happens when and if public schools take steps to win back those families?

Catholic schools confront challenging realities as they contend with how to maintain and grow their recent gains. Among them are geographic population shifts, questions about affordability and a generation of parents who are less likely to participate in Catholic life than their parents or grandparents were. Many Catholic education administrators and advocates believe the key to overcoming these challenges is putting the schools’ Catholic identity front and center.

“What’s the value add?” asked Terence Sweeney, a Catholic theologian and philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, in an online interview. “What about a Catholic education is better?”

“The church does not run educational institutions just for kicks,” he said. While he acknowledges providing schools as a work of mercy is important, Dr. Sweeney adds the caveat that the Second Vatican Council states that “the purpose of Catholic education is for building up human virtue in this life and our ultimate ends of union with God in the next.”

“So if that’s why we have Catholic schools,” he said, “That should be kind of the center of what we’re thinking and what we’re doing.” The key, he said, is specificity: “You’re going to learn about saints, you’re going to read a little bit about Augustine in your high school.”

“What’s the value add? What about a Catholic education is better?”

Many people I spoke to hope that the mission and ministry of the school will help to inform how Catholic schools address the many practical questions that come with putting mission into action.

Finances and Stewardship

One indirect effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on Catholic schools comes from population shifts within the United States, including Americans taking advantage of remote work to move to another state.

“You have to account for areas where families are moving to (and away from),” said Mark Gray, director of polling for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, in an email to America. School closures in one state or diocese sometimes lead to increased enrollment elsewhere: CARA numbers show that overall, the number of Catholic elementary schools in the United States fell by 6 percent between 2019 and 2023. But school closures can tell a different story than enrollment. N.C.E.A. numbers show that enrollment growth for the 2022-23 school year was up by 1.7 percent in the Southeast, particularly Virginia and the Carolinas, even as Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania saw a cumulative 7.5% decrease in enrollment.

These shifts mimic a larger trend: people leaving large urban centers—often on the coasts—for Sun Belt states, something that has been happening at varying speeds for decades but has been especially noticeable since the pandemic. In some large cities where Catholic school enrollment has declined, like Los Angeles and New York City, the public school enrollment numbers have also dropped dramatically. Such changes, according to Lincoln Snyder, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, account for the uneven picture of Catholic school enrollment nationwide.

Mr. Gray said that how schools are funded is another factor in their viability, noting that “[tuition] affordability is a major issue.”

“Catholic education’s always been really expensive,” said Mr. Snyder, “The question’s been, who’s paying for it?

“Seventy years ago,” he added, “the person paying for Catholic education was the religious sister that was essentially working for free.”

Since schools are no longer able to hold down labor costs by employing men and women religious, they rely more on the financial contribution of students and their families. Mr. Snyder argues that the broader Catholic community should also feel a communal responsibility for Catholic schools.

Catholic education is supposed to be something for the entire parish.

“Church teaching in the United States is very clear that Catholic education is supposed to be something for the entire parish,” he said, “and also the responsibility of the entire parish, and not just for the parents who are paying for tuition.” Mr. Snyder contends that even states with generous school choice subsidies are no substitute for community involvement. The laity must all see themselves as stakeholders: “We can’t depend on parents being the only ones to bear the cost,” he said. “Honestly, that’s never been the way we’ve operated as church.”

The stewardship model of the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., is one such comprehensive, whole-parish approach. Among the typical social and spiritual ministries, the diocese also boasts tuition-free Catholic education, made possible by its unique model of parishioner participation. The stewardship program, which will be 40 years old in 2025, is a “way of life for the entire parish,” said the diocesan stewardship director, the Rev. John Jirak, in a phone interview. At Father Jirak’s parish, the Church of the Magdalen, new parishioners meet with an assigned parish staff member, who explains the parishioner-led, parishioner-run model. Rather than simply fill out a registration form, they fill out a stewardship form to help discern where they are being called to give of their time, talent and treasure. Parishioners pledge regular Mass attendance, active participation in church ministries and 10 percent giving, divided between their church and other charitable giving. According to Father Jirak, 150 new families registered for the stewardship program last year.

Although Father Jirak describes the schools as an “accident” of a fruitful diocese-wide program, he is also candid that they also serve as an evangelization tool. He acknowledges that it is unrealistic to expect pure altruism when people first join a stewardship parish, and the diocesan schools, he said, have a degree of excellence that draws people in.

“We don’t dilute,” he said, “Everything has got to be next level” in terms of quality. Father Jirak said there are Catholic school classes in the diocese with waiting lists, and one Catholic high school is anticipating its largest freshman class ever. “Our schools are really outstanding,” he said.

And the families who are attracted to the schools, said Father Jirak, tend to stay for the spiritual benefits they experience. He notes that the families joining parishes today are not part of the Greatest Generation cohort who began Wichita’s stewardship program and who had a sense of duty to institutions that their children and grandchildren don’t necessarily share. Subsequent generations require more accompaniment, which he describes as an ongoing process. The stewardship concept is woven into the preaching from the pulpit, parishioners partake in an annual stewardship commitment renewal, and there is regular outreach from a stewardship council and an accompaniment team. All of this amounts to what Father Jirak concedes is perhaps an “over-explaining” of the stewardship concept throughout the various parishioner-led ministries. But for these younger generations, he said, accompaniment “looks like evangelization.”

The Heart of the Matter

Many Catholic education administrators and advocates have had a similar realization about the need for evangelization and what Dr. Sweeney identifies as the importance of formation to the Catholic school mission. Dr. Todd Flanders is the headmaster of Providence Academy in the Diocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., which opened in 2001 and continues to attract new students, even post-Covid. At the time of our interview in May, he said work was scheduled to begin over the summer to build 11 additional classrooms.

“It’s not about Covid anymore. It’s about mission.”

“It’s not about Covid anymore,” he said in a phone interview, referring to the attraction of Catholic schools that stayed open during the pandemic. “It’s about mission.”

In his estimation, what has held back investment in Catholic education by the wider community is that most people in the pews don’t realize what the Catholic schools are doing in the areas not only of education, but of catechesis and formation. The solution, he believes, is “clarity about mission.”

Providence Academy is a member of Duc in Altum, a Catholic school collaborative that Kyle Pietrantonio, its executive director, described in a phone interview as using the New Evangelization to develop the “strong community of faith that can and ought to exist in vibrant, faith-forward Catholic schools.” The vision is to rethink Catholic schools as dynamic networks that include not just students and faculty, but families and alumni, communities that are “almost what the parish was” in previous decades, he said. The collaborative began a decade ago with five school presidents who shared a vision to use K-12 Catholic education as a vehicle to, in Mr. Pietrantonio’s words, “rechurch our church.” Today it consists of member schools representing 45 U.S. states, which meet annually for a three-day conference to share best practices.

Duc in Altum (Latin for “Cast out into the deep”) recognizes that many parents with students enrolled in Catholic schools are millennials who are disaffiliated from the faith. Mr. Pietrantonio said he has found that many parents “didn’t have a lot of catechesis and strong formation,” so his organization places emphasis on leveraging leadership, religion teachers and ministry teams in Catholic schools “to really start putting together parent formation programs” to meet the parents where they are.

Mr. Pietrantonio noted examples of schools with parent faith-sharing and Bible studies groups, family service and outreach projects in communities and abroad, which weave in the sacraments where possible. One Duc in Altum member school, JSerra, for example, offers an adult spiritual formation and personal development initiative called Adelante (“Forward” in Spanish). Adelante is aimed at, but not limited to, school parents. Under the initiative’s auspices is “The Search,” an evening spiritual development session offered monthly and featuring food, a short film and group discussion.

A few generations ago, Mr. Snyder says, Catholic school students had more exposure and familiarity with Catholic teaching and tradition, through both their families and the parish, but that can no longer be taken for granted.

You have to evangelize before you catechize.

“Just looking at the data, our Catholic schools really are our best chance, not just at catechesis, but evangelization for students,” he said. “You have to evangelize before you catechize.”

Looking at the parents who have entrusted their children to Catholic schools, Mr. Snyder said he sees “the hearts are wide open now,” offering an opportunity to the church.

He gives some examples of ways Catholic schools are acting on this opportunity, including virtue education in younger grades to shape the Catholic ethos and mindset, more intentionality in providing retreats to students at the secondary levels, and ensuring the quality of the teachers imparting the education. “It’s not just what’s taught, but who’s teaching it,” he said.

The cultural shift these approaches represent, as Dr. Flanders and Mr. Pietrantonio both assert, are different ways of showing students “what the Catholic worldview is and why it’s special, and why it’s a good way for them to live, too.” According to Mr. Snyder, even students who may step away from the faith as young adults often “come back because they realize what the adults in school were modeling for them, in hindsight.”

“We don’t, in real life, compartmentalize our mental, emotional and spiritual experiences,” said Dr. Flanders. “It is cross-disciplinary.” At Providence Academy, for example, incoming seniors read Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World over the summer as both an English and a religion course requirement.

Dr. Sweeney sees the infusion of the Catholic faith throughout the curriculum as a key benefit for students receiving a Catholic education. Rather than treating it as “public school plus 40 minutes of religion class,” he says, Catholic schools should lean into robust humanities and science and math curricula that are also “uniquely Catholic” and which aspire to “aim to be different.”

“We’re in a culture that loves to talk about difference,” he said, “but actually, our educational institutions are constantly sliding toward sameness, so Catholic schools have the chance and the courage to be different.”

The Broader Catholic Family

The difference is not just attractive to Catholic families. Just as Catholic families’ enrolling their children in Catholic schools can no longer be taken for granted, parents of other faiths who once would never dream of enrolling their students in a Catholic school are increasingly willing to enroll their children. Non-Catholic student enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools has been on an upward trajectory since 1972, when non-Catholics accounted for 4.7 percent of Catholic school students. Today, 22 percent of students in Catholic schools are non-Catholics, up from just under 20 percent pre-pandemic.

Today, 22 percent of students in Catholic schools are non-Catholics, up from just under 20 percent pre-pandemic.

Kathleen Porter-Magee is the superintendent of Partnership Schools, a private school management organization that operates as an independent 501(c)3 corporation. Formed in 2010 by the merger of two Catholic education initiatives within the Archdiocese of New York, and granted full operational control of six preK-8 Catholic schools across Harlem and the South Bronx in 2013, Partnership Schools embraces a mission “to develop outstanding Catholic elementary schools that provide students from underserved communities with the academic preparation, values, and skills they need to break the cycle of poverty and lead fulfilling, productive lives.” Asked whether parents enrolling their children in Partnership Schools are choosing Catholic education for the faith aspect, Ms. Porter-McGee said, “I think the short answer is yes.” Cautioning that her response is anecdotal, she added, “I think it becomes an even stronger ‘yes’ if, when you ask that question, you mean ‘Are people drawn to the values that are sort of core to a faith-based education?’”

Ms. Porter-Magee, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, co-authored a study for the think tank in 2022 on the increase in Catholic school enrollment as the pandemic continued. The study noted that the Diocese of Arlington in particular was responsible for “the lion’s share” of Virginia’s 8.8 percent Catholic school enrollment increase from the 2020-21 to the 2021-22 school years. It is this diocese, the study states, that includes many of the cities and counties that were “the epicenter” of much of the controversy amid school reopenings in 2021. Yet even as Catholic school enrollment grew in the diocese, in October of that same school year, weekly Mass attendance in its churches remained depressed below pre-pandemic levels.

Ms. Porter-Magee said the Manhattan Institute Study did not survey families on the reasons for choosing Catholic schools, but she suspects a preference, even among non-Catholics, for schools more aligned with their values, particularly in areas of the country where the public schools espouse values parents perceive to contradict their own.

“If you use Northern Virginia as an interesting case study,” Ms. Porter-McGee said, “over the course of the pandemic, you saw the perfect storm.” Parents were looking to escape one or both of two factors, she said. First was the prolonged closure of public schools in the Diocese of Arlington, “almost longer than any other in the country.” A second possible factor was the raging “culture war” debates in places like Loudoun County, located in Northern Virginia, where critical race theory, mask mandates and bathroom policies for transgender students ignited passions.

Ms. Porter-Magee’s theorizing over motivations comes from a place of experience. Notably, while just over half of the students in New York Partnership Schools for the 2022-23 school year were Catholic (53 percent), in Cleveland, only 9 percent of the student body were Catholic. The Cleveland schools are majority Black (70 percent) and the New York City schools majority Hispanic (57 percent). The N.C.E.A. reports that overall statistics for the 2022-23 school year show that 8 percent of Catholic school students are Black, and just under 20 percent are Hispanic.

Access to a quality education and school safety are drivers for many of the parents.

Access to a quality education and school safety are drivers for many of the parents, she said. “But it’s also the faith and values piece,” as well as school safety. If a public school passes from what Ms. Porter-Magee calls a “tipping point” from being merely secular to an environment where “it feels like your children are being educated in a community that is either not open to you or maybe in some cases, overtly denigrating something that you believe is really important to your children’s upbringing, then you’re going to start to seek out alternatives. And that is, I think, in pockets of the country, what we’re starting to see.”

Retaining Families, Fostering Belief

Twenty-two percent of students in Catholic schools are not Catholic, according to the N.C.E.A.’s data brief on school enrollment for the 2022-23 school year. “Our non-Catholic population is higher than ever,” Mr. Snyder said. But this percentage ranges widely for individual schools.

Although many families chose Catholic schools because they were open during the pandemic, Catholic schools have retained “a vast majority” of them, Mr. Snyder said, adding that 60 percent of U.S. dioceses’ enrollment remained stable or even increased. When these parents had the opportunity to return to tuition-free public schools, they did not do so. “The top reasons they gave were falling in love with the teachers and the instruction their kids were receiving, and then falling in love with the communities,” he said. “Even for our non-Catholic families, they’ve noted the difference about being in a loving, Catholic environment.”

Providence Academy’s student body has been two-thirds Catholic, one-third non-Catholic for its two decades. Now it is scrambling to accommodate an influx of new students, many of whom are from evangelical or other Protestant backgrounds.

Dr. Flanders attributes the boost in enrollment for the 2020-21 school year—there were 250 applicants, of which they were able to admit only around 50—to the school’s flexibility in addressing the challenges of remote learning and the needs of the students, efforts meant to show “that child, and school, and family are one.” Interest in the school dropped off slightly for the coming year, he said, but it remains high.

Mr. Pietrantonio said he hopes that some students will enter the faith while attending Catholic school, and parents may have conversions or reversions. Some schools have permission from their local ordinaries to provide the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, as well as parent ambassadors charged with inviting new parents to attend liturgies and the sacramental life in the life of the school. “More and more dioceses are offering school-focused programs that then bring the family more into observance through the school,” said Mr. Snyder.

The educational philosophy, therefore, must be rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.

There are conversions and reversions? “Oh, every year,” he said, including students, families, and alumni. Providence Academy boasts an adult Bible study for student and alumni parents with a membership of over 60 that meets weekly, led by a teacher with a Ph.D. in philosophy.

As the leader of a Catholic school in an urban area, Dr. Flanders said he sees particular benefits for disadvantaged and immigrant students. “Catholic schooling just becomes an absolute key to giving a future and a hope,” when rooted in a Catholic understanding of solidarity and concern for the poor, he said, “so the idea of equipping Catholic schools in disadvantaged areas is just huge.”

“Utter fidelity [to the faith and church traditions] is key,” Dr. Flanders said. “I think that there’s so much yearning out there in the world, and this is among secular people as well, yearning for some grounding, some reality, something to stand on, something that they can rely on for the safety and formation of their children,” he said. “The educational philosophy, therefore, must be rooted in the person of Jesus Christ and the recognition that in him, truth, justice and goodness are ultimately one.”

This approach meshes with Terrence Sweeney’s vision of a curriculum steeped in the faith, in which an invitation to encountering “great texts” in a classical education program, for example, does not equal identification with the Republican Party or political conservatism but something altogether more interesting and challenging. “A Catholic education model in general should make students uncomfortable with lots of political options,” he said. “If you really read Augustine on poverty, you’re going to be uncomfortable with certain aspects of contemporary American capitalist life.”

But the survival of Catholic schools depends, in part, on adapting to the realities of American capitalist life.

This framework is encapsulated in an anecdote Mr. Pietrantonio tells, in which a parent donated the funds to replace old, tattered hymnals in a school with new, better-looking ones, filled with what he called “beautiful hymns.” This is something that would not have been possible, he notes, had the school not opened up its regular Masses to the parents in its community.

“This goes back to funding,” he said.

“There are Catholic philanthropists that do see [Catholic schools] as a great mechanism by which the church can be reborn,” he said. “Of course, philanthropists want to support a winning team. And so when philanthropy sees that fruit is being born and it’s on mission, these schools then get to see some development revenue and support that they haven’t seen.”

Catholic schools have a very special role right now within the church.

Partnership Schools appears to bear this out. Donations from individuals, trustees and foundations have increased 120 percent in the past five years. Both the New York City and Cleveland networks saw notable increases in giving between 2021 and 2022 (69 percent and 76 percent, respectively). And the nonprofit has continued to expand: An additional Catholic school was added to its New York network in 2019, and four Catholic schools were added in Cleveland, Ohio, between 2020 and 2022. Both schools are majority minority, and 79 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch in New York, and 93 percent in Cleveland.

Hope for the Future

Even if Mass attendance remains down, “the schools have a very special role right now within the church,” said Mr. Snyder. “We trust the church is going to see that for the opportunity that it is.”

N.C.E.A.’s numbers show a total of just under 1.7 million students at diocesan, religious order and independent Catholic schools. However, “even for the families that are still affiliated with the church and that are reporting that they’re Catholic, observance is not what it was 20 years ago for everybody,” said Mr. Snyder. No one I spoke to had exact data on the faith of cradle Catholic parents enrolling their children at Catholic Schools, but “anecdotally,” Mr. Snyder said in reference to larger Catholic high schools, “school leaders are reporting that in many cases, the majority of the kids, while Catholic, don’t go to Mass every Sunday.”

Families at Catholic elementary schools tend to have higher levels of religious observance, according to Mr. Snyder. He said he remembers Mass being offered only once a month, during his own experience attending Catholic schools in Sacramento in the 1980s, but that in recent years “a recognition that observance was falling,” lead to “a big shift” intended “to keep kids plugged into sacramental observance, and learning about why is it so important to participate in the sacraments.” Now many schools offer weekly school Masses, and make confession available during the school day.

The average age of disaffiliation from the faith is 13, said Mr. Snyder, and “Our kids in Catholic school are not entirely immune from these broader trends.” However, he notes the rate of observance among children in Catholic schools remains higher than among the general population.

Among the best practices Mr. Pietrantonio describes from Duc in Altum schools is maintaining a dynamic alumni network, especially for the most recent graduates, offering silent retreats, faculty talks and alumni Masses for them when they return home on breaks from college. The Catholic school, he said, can remain instrumental in forming these young people at a time when many begin to disaffiliate.

It is an approach that parents and students alike continue to reward. Dr. Flanders said funding for Providence Academy’s new classrooms came from parents, alumni and alumni parents. The alumni connection, he said, “is getting really exciting.”

The school’s first students to begin their PreK through 12 education there in 2001 graduated in 2015, and those students, now adults establishing careers and families of their own, demonstrate “a fierce loyalty to the old school,” he said. Parishes, as well, experience the benefits. He said pastors in the surrounding parishes tell him that Providence Academy’s student participation in parish programs adds a solid understanding of the faith to efforts like charitable outreach.

When asked whether the siphoning of students off into Catholic school systems threatens to silo Americans when many are already sorting themselves ideologically, Ms. Porter-Magee is careful to note that while correlation does not equal causation, today’s fractious social discourse is happening at a time when there are fewer children being educated in Catholic schools than in previous decades. But far from cloistering students, Ms. Porter-Magee said, “Catholic schools in particular have an amazing track record at civic education.”

Catholic schools in particular have an amazing track record at civic education.

Research by Notre Dame’s Cardus Religious Schools Initiative within the past decade supports Ms. Porter-Magee’s statement, especially when contrasted with Catholic schools’ two major competitors for students: public school and homeschool. A C.R.S.I. study in 2014 found that homeschool graduates, even religious ones, are less likely to volunteer outside of their congregations, or to have given to a charitable organization in the previous 12 months, than are public school graduates. By comparison, a C.R.S.I. report in 2017 found that Catholic school graduates volunteer for a greater number of organizations on average than public school graduates, and are also more than 40 percent more likely to donate to poverty relief charities and 30 percent more likely to donate to health care causes. Researchers were struck by the way that Catholic school graduates’ pattern of giving and volunteering—focused on these areas, as well as on education, youth, and family services—reflected Catholic social teaching.

Catholic school is “an investment in the future of the church,” said Mr. Snyder. “We’re building a bench for the world, but we’re also building the bench for the church,” he added, sounding as much like a coach as an administrator, “We know that many of our leaders and many of the observant Catholics in a generation are going to be kids who graduated from Catholic school.

“We do a great job of forming servant leaders,” he said. “We actually do a really good job of teaching students how to talk to one another, especially how to discuss and discourse with people who have different views than they do.” These are things, he said, “you learn in community, and not just from a curriculum.”

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