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Catholic Schools

Closings show uphill battle for Catholic schools

  • Brian Fraga, OSV Newsweekly
  • |
  • February 08 2016
Blog
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Chicago archdiocese to close four schools as leaders try to address challenges of declining enrollment

Shifting demographics and economic factors continue to prompt dioceses across the country to close and consolidate Catholic schools, with the Archdiocese of Chicago the most recent high-profile example of that decade long trend.

In January, the archdiocese announced that four schools will be closing at the end of the 2015-16 school year because of falling enrollment and growing operational deficits: St. Agatha Catholic Academy in Chicago, St. Peter School in Antioch, Seton Academy in South Holland and St. Edmund School in Oak Park.

A fifth school, St. Alphonsus Liguori in Prospect Heights, has been given a reprieve for now, with the archdiocese giving school officials until Feb. 8 to raise $400,000 and show a committed, registered enrollment of 135 students.

"We have had our ups and downs over the last few months," said Betty Cloud, marketing director of St. Alphonsus Liguori School. “But we are determined to succeed. We hope to continue our tradition of excellence in education which began in 1958.”

Cloud said the school has received $332,000 in pledges and $110,000 toward those pledges, and added that more contributions are arriving daily.

Meanwhile, the archdiocese said in a statement that there is “a conversation taking place” regarding St. Margaret Mary School joining Northside Catholic Academy’s partnership with other affiliated parishes. Under that proposal, Catholic education would continue on the St. Margaret Mary School campus but under the banner of Northside Catholic Academy, which, according to the statement, “is a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School and has experienced increasing enrollment over the past few years.”

Dwindling numbers

The Chicago school closings and mergers reflect the situation that Catholic education officials in the formerly solid urban Catholic strongholds of the Northeast and Midwest have been dealing with for several years. Those dioceses have been challenged by higher operating expenses, fewer practicing Catholics attending Mass and supporting parish schools, the emergence of public charter schools as well as the decades long flight from the cities to the suburbs, among other factors.

As a result, the archdioceses in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and elsewhere have been forced to shutter Catholic schools that for generations provided a solid education to many and solidified neighborhoods.

According to the National Catholic Educational Association, since the 2005 academic year, at least 1,648 Catholic schools were reported closed or consolidated while only 336 school openings were reported. The number of total enrolled students declined by almost 20 percent.

The most seriously impacted have been Catholic elementary schools. The NCEA reports that since 2005, elementary school enrollment has declined by 30 percent in the 12 largest urban dioceses of the country and 20.4 percent in the rest of the United States.

Success story

The Chicago Sun Times reported that the archdiocese, which runs the nation’s largest private school system with nearly 83,000 students in 230 schools, closed and consolidated a dozen schools in 2013 and closed another five schools last year. As of early January, at St. Agatha Catholic Academy, an early childhood program, only 12 students were enrolled.

“It’s not like 60 years ago where every parishioner would send their kids to the school,” said Kevin Powers, the principal of St. Margaret of Scotland School, a K-8 grade school in Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

Powers told Our Sunday Visitor that when he became principal three years ago, the school was labeled a “turnaround school,” meaning it was under performing and the district needed to overhaul it. But halfway through the 2015-16 school year, St. Margaret of Scotland is showing the kind of turnaround that archdiocesan officials hope to see in other schools moving forward. Under Power’s tenure, enrollment has climbed from 150 to 220, and the school’s deficit has been cut nearly in half, to about $400,000.

St. Margaret of Scotland School proves that Catholic schools can be revitalized, but not with the old single-parish-based model that served those schools well when priests and religious taught classes instead of lay teachers who are paid a salary.

The Big Shoulders Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit that offers scholarships, instructional equipment and faculty support programs among other offerings, provided funds, a financial plan and marketing advice that Powers said allowed the school to reduce tuition by $200 for parents who recruit new students.

The school’s turnaround status allowed Powers to hand-pick his staff and hire seven new teachers, almost all of whom are still with the school. The Big Shoulders Fund and the archdiocese also provided coaching and training for the teachers.

In addition, St. Margaret of Scotland partnered with St. Clement Church in Chicago, which has also worked with the school’s administration to provide scholarships, professional development opportunities for teachers and educational enrichment programs for students.

“The biggest thing has been the partnership between the school, the archdiocese, Big Shoulders and St. Clement,” Powers said. “There are very few schools and parishes in the archdiocese that are doing what we’re doing. We have monthly meetings where our partners come down to school and visit the classrooms to see what they can do to help.”

‘A mission school’

Chicago Catholic Schools Superintendent Jim Rigg, who was not available for comment with OSV, told local news outlets that the archdiocese will be looking to increase enrollment when it unveils a new strategic plan next year. The archdiocese is closing out a $350 million fundraising campaign and is expected to join the push for the state legislature to enact scholarship tax credits in Illinois.

The archdiocese’s current strategic plan for schools, which covers the time period from 2013 to 2016, says that the modern environment presents many challenges to Catholic schools compared to the past. Creating a vibrant school today, the strategic plan says, requires “a broader and deeper set of skills than some principals, trained in a different era, are prepared for.”

Today, a successful school requires strong marketing efforts, particularly because many parents are not familiar with Catholic schools themselves. For example, Powers said 98 percent of his school’s students are not Catholic. About 70 percent of them are at or below the federal poverty line and live in different neighborhoods.

“We have families who are traveling from 10 minutes to 30 minutes to come to our school,” Powers said, adding that his students live in 10 different zip codes. That kind of diversity requires a creative marketing strategy that incorporates billboard advertising and social media outreach.

“The role of a principal has changed a lot over the past couple of decades,” Powers said. “Before, they didn’t have to market themselves. Now, the financial strategic marketing aspects of the school fall on the principal.”

A big part of Powers’ job in the winter and spring is also focusing on increasing enrollment. The school has organized open houses, informational nights and “shadow days” where people come in and tour the school. Just as important is retaining students, and that means that the administration reaches out to those families to see if they are being served and if they need any help.

Despite the structural reforms, Powers said his school will never have a zero deficit, but he added that the archdiocese, Big Shoulders and St. Clement Church have pledged their continued support.

“We’re a mission school, and we’re doing God’s work here,” Powers said. “We’re educating these students because we’re Catholic, not because they’re Catholic.”

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