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Kathleen Porter-MageeAugust 19, 2022
Fifth-grade teacher Madeline Schmitt directs her students at St. Patrick School in Huntington, N.Y., on Sept. 9, 2020. Most Catholic schools returned to in-person learning earlier than public schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)Fifth-grade teacher Madeline Schmitt directs her students at St. Patrick School in Huntington, N.Y., on Sept. 9, 2020. Most Catholic schools returned to in-person learning earlier than public schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

For the first time in 20 years, enrollment in U.S. Catholic elementary and secondary schools increased in 2021-22, rising by 3.8 percent according to data from the National Catholic Educational Association. The enrollment boost was driven in large part by the leadership Catholic schools showed in returning to in-person learning a full year before many of their public school counterparts. But if we want to turn this enrollment rebound into enduring growth, we will have to double down on what makes our schools unique—and what makes them so critical to the broader ministry of the church—while removing the barriers that make our schools inaccessible to too many.

Last year’s enrollment increase comes after a decades-long decline in both the number of Catholic schools and the number of Catholic school students. While not always asked so directly, this slow and steady decline has raised two questions: Do we still need Catholic schools? And are these 19th-century creations the best way to help 21st-century children?

The enrollment boost was driven in large part by the leadership Catholic schools showed in returning to in-person learning a full year before many of their public school counterparts.

American Catholic schools were established 150 years ago to form children in the faith at a time when public schools were unapologetically Protestant and overtly hostile to Catholic values. Parochial education provided an affordable option—subsidized by parishes the same way public schools were subsidized by property taxes—that helped parents ensure that their child’s education worked with rather than against their faith.

But the schools became so effective that they attracted far more than the Catholic children they were established to serve. In particular, urban Catholic schools gained a reputation as being among the best schools of any type—safe, academically rigorous and grounded in enduring values—for low-income and immigrant parents of all faiths. They have become critically important to the church’s ministry to the poor by providing a path out of poverty for millions of students.

When parishes were thriving, Catholic schools could be staffed by mission-aligned sisters, brothers and priests, and they could fulfill both purposes—ministry to the church and an engine of social mobility for under-resourced and immigrant communities—while remaining financially sustainable. But as the cost of running Catholic schools rose and parents increasingly chose free public and charter school options, some parishes found it difficult to serve both missions equally. Since the height of the Catholic educational system in the 1960s, roughly 7,000 Catholic elementary and secondary schools have closed, and enrollment has declined from 5.2 million to about 1.6 million. In an effort to get back on the path to sustainability, too many schools made a fateful mistake: downplaying (at least publicly) their Catholic identity in their attempts to emulate the public and charter schools with which they compete.

Urban Catholic schools gained a reputation as being among the best schools of any type for low-income and immigrant parents of all faiths.

Flash forward to 2020, a time of great crisis that tested the K-12 education system in our country like nothing we had seen in more than a century. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Catholic schools have stood apart by making decisions that were guided by principled leadership. They have put the needs of families and communities first—beginning in March 2020, when Catholic schools were among the first to close, and then again in fall 2020 when they reopened well before the windfall of federal funds to help reopen schools. Indeed, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which included $122 billion to help schools reopen safely, was not signed into law until March 11—six months after the vast majority of Catholic schools had reopened, and while many public and charter schools were still locked in remote or hybrid learning.

While children were facing an “epidemic of loneliness” even before Covid, the prolonged school closures exacerbated the challenge, and the number of children struggling with mental health challenges has risen over the past three years. An increasing number of families have responded by seeking out the kind of safe, values-driven and character-centered education that Catholic schools are uniquely positioned to offer.

But to translate the one-year enrollment boomlet into an enduring shift, Catholic schools need to do two things. First, we need to double down on the kind of values-driven, principled leadership that drove the Catholic schools response to Covid in 2020 and 2021. Second, we must bring the same creative problem-solving they brought to pandemic leadership—clearing a glide path to reopening schools and balancing safety with the need for in-person learning—and apply it not just to marketing, but also to admissions and enrollment. We too often erect barriers to entry rather than clearing a path and opening doors.

We need to double down on the kind of values-driven, principled leadership that drove the Catholic schools response to Covid in 2020 and 2021.

We faced this challenge head-on at Partnership Schools, when enrollment at our seven New York City Catholic schools dropped to an historic low in 2020. When we analyzed our own admissions and enrollment policies and data, we came to a surprising conclusion: We had erected academic and paperwork barriers to entry that were so high that we were unintentionally driving away exactly the families we most wanted to serve.

Our mission at the Partnership is to support urban Catholic schools in some of the nation’s most under-resourced neighborhoods; our schools in Harlem and the South Bronx serve students from the poorest congressional districts in the nation. Since New York does not have a publicly funded school choice program to help economically disadvantaged families access private and parochial schools, we must raise millions each year and to partner with external scholarship-granting organizations to provide financial aid to our students.

To ensure that this aid is divided equitably among the neediest families, we asked families to meet complicated paperwork requirements before we could tell them how much scholarship support we could offer. Families needed to provide tax returns, notarized custody letters and other documents. But we inadvertently created a brick wall that families in crisis—exactly the families we hoped to serve—struggled to hurdle.

Complicated paperwork inadvertently created a brick wall that families in crisis—exactly the families we hoped to serve—struggled to hurdle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an internal audit revealed that 87 percent of families who took more than one week to complete this paperwork never enrolled in our schools. In other words, our quest to serve families and communities equitably and fairly had the unintended effect of locking out families most in need of our support.

To address this challenge, in 2021 we scaled back our requirements and now only ask for a two-page financial form that can be completed on site, guaranteeing that every family can find out immediately how much aid they qualify for. This shift positioned us perfectly to make the most of the increased demand Catholic schools experienced in 2021, and it has allowed us to continue to increase enrollment into 2022-2023. (As of publication, we are on track to increase enrollment for the upcoming year by another 4 percent.) This even as the New York City student population declined and as public schools across the city “hemorrhaged” students.

And by reducing barriers to entry and streamlining admissions, while deciding not to increase tuition and fees during the crisis, we actually increased tuition revenue while extending our mission to serve an even greater number of needy children.

Of course, it will take more than a one-time enrollment boost to revitalize Catholic schools for the long haul. It will take a concerted effort on the part of philanthropists who have an opportunity to invest in financially struggling but academically excellent Catholic schools, of policymakers who continue the nationwide fight for school choice, and of diocesan leaders who must think differently about Catholic school management, government and support.

But the enrollment boom is a healthy reminder that, while the challenges we face as Catholic school leaders are many, there is still much we can do on our own to rewrite the future of urban Catholic education in America.

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