It is a story that has made the rounds many times over the last decade: Catholic school enrollment is dwindling, schools are closing and the future of Catholic education as a whole remains in question.

In a general sense, the stories are accurate. According to statistics released by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), total enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools has declined by nearly half a million students in the last 10 years, with the numbers continuing to slide. More than 1,400 schools have shut their doors since 2000, and in the last year alone, 162 schools were closed or consolidated while only 31 new schools opened.

And although in recent years the rate of the decline has slowed, there is still a definite downward trend, said Dan Curtin, executive director of the NCEA’s Department of Chief Administrators of Catholic Education.

“We’re still losing enrollment, but my sense is that we’re not losing enrollment or schools at the rate that we were losing them five or 10 years ago,” Curtin told Our Sunday Visitor. “But we’re still losing a number of students in Catholic schools, and we see that as a real concern.”

The recent decline in the economy and rise in unemployment has only further complicated the problem, he added, as many families are seeking financial aid to continue sending their children to Catholic schools while others are forced to make the switch to public school.

“The economy has definitely impacted Catholic school enrollment across the country, as well as operations,” Curtin said. “We see that dioceses are struggling to find resources to put toward subsidizing schools and individual parishes are finding it difficult because their collections are down.”

Covering the cost

But in spite of the sobering statistics, many in Catholic education are seeing signs of hope while searching for ways to reverse the trend.

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, Dominican Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of the archdiocese’s schools, reports that this year’s enrollment decline was roughly the same as in previous years. With an unemployment rate that reached 11 percent in the state, she considers it a small victory that there wasn’t a greater drop.

More importantly, she noted, the interest in Catholic schools still appears to be strong despite the financial obstacles involved.

“We are seeing a trend that if the product is great and the parents know about it, they want it,” she said. “Then the biggest thing becomes figuring out how to afford it.”

Doug Lieser, principal of St. Matthew’s School in St. Paul, Minn., realized the quandary of paying for Catholic education was preventing some families from even considering his school. In response, St. Matthew’s initiated a targeted fundraising campaign directed at alumni and community members to help pay for more students to come to the school.

“What we saw here is that we had a declining enrollment, and the ability of our families to pay tuition was becoming harder and harder,” Lieser told Our Sunday Visitor. He added that the school assumed there were more families in the community who had an interest in Catholic education but lacked the resources to make it a possibility.

By assembling a team to solicit donations, Lieser said the school raised $150,000 to help supplement tuition costs. Through spreading a positive, hope-filled message about the school, they have also seen their number of donors increase year to year, even as the economy has dipped.

The school has also made clear to parents of prospective students that Catholic education is accessible to everyone, regardless of how much they can afford to contribute to their child’s tuition. While all families pay some tuition, only 10 percent pay full price, Lieser said.

“That became a huge piece for us because [the cost] really was a barrier for a lot of our families,” he said.

“We just found that those assumptions we started with — that there are people in this community who would want an education here but just don’t think they could afford it — we found to be true. And as those people came in and learned more about us, they ended up enrolling.”

Marketing strategies

While helping families to afford the cost of Catholic education is an important component, it is not the only part of the puzzle Catholic schools must tackle in building their enrollment.

According to John Eriksen, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., families are no longer drawn to Catholic schools for the same reasons as previous generations. With fewer of today’s parents being products of Catholic schools themselves and less of a sense of parish commitment, Eriksen told OSV it takes a strong marketing pitch to persuade families to choose a Catholic education.

“This generation of Catholics, the parents raising these kids, they shop parishes. If they are not happy with the preaching, the music or the sense of welcome, they will go somewhere else,” Eriksen said. “So it is not necessarily an innate connection to their faith that would draw parents to send their kids to Catholic schools.”

Instead, Eriksen — a 35-year-old former consultant for the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management — argues that schools must take a more corporate-minded approach in selling their product to parents, who in some cases are already paying high property taxes to fund public schools.

“People don’t like to say this, but K-12 Catholic school education is a business. And we really need to take a look at our business operations as well as the product we are offering,” he said. “I tell our principals that you have to answer the question of the parents, ‘Why should I pay twice?’ And until you can do that in a convincing way, you are not going to draw the enrollment.”

By refining the business model of his diocese’s schools, Eriksen has seen positive results. Centralizing the business and financial operations of elementary schools has ended millions of dollars in losses and allowed the schools to break even, while growth targets have been set with the hope of seeing enrollment numbers increase within two years, he said.

Back at St. Matthew’s, Lieser said that the school turned to parents of current students for input in crafting a new marketing strategy. They conducted a survey to find out why parents had chosen the school, and in doing so discovered that the features they often touted in their marketing efforts — such as their computer labs or quality teaching staff — were in fact not the school’s greatest assets.

“What our families overwhelmingly said for the reasons they choose St. Matthew’s is that we are small, we are Catholic and we provide a safe environment,” Lieser said. “And we realized that all these other great things we were doing were really distracting from a core message that we needed to get out there.”

The study enabled St. Matthew’s to develop a clear identity that they could market within the community.

“The biggest piece was to really focus our message, being specific and clear about who we were, and to make it a message that our own families could share with other people,” Lieser explained. “So when they were at the grocery store or at their son’s baseball game and people would ask them where their kids go to school, they could say St. Matthew’s and back that up with ‘We chose it because it is small, Catholic and a safe environment.’ And they really spread that message over and over again.”

The approach was undoubtedly successful and produced a dramatic turnaround at St. Matthew’s. After several years of declining enrollment, the student body jumped from 136 to 193 students in just two years. They’ve also committed to capping their enrollment at 200 students to maintain the smaller size that gives them an advantage over the more crowded public schools.

Educational advantages

Although academics wasn’t the primary reason parents gave for choosing St. Matthew’s School, it is in many cases a defining factor for why families select a Catholic school over other available options. And with continued technological advances and new methods of education being developed, Catholic schools are working hard to keep pace with their public counterparts.

In Chicago, Sister McCaughey said that most of the 256 schools of the archdiocese are equipped with smart-board technology, portable computer labs and other devices to enhance learning, while teachers are required to be trained on the latest technologies in the classroom. Whether the schools are in poor, urban areas or the wealthier suburbs, she said, they must always have a strategy to compete with public schools.

“There are certainly some of our schools that are clearly better academically and in terms of technology than the neighborhood option,” Sister McCaughey said.

“And then there are others — public schools that have gargantuan amounts of money, $21,000 per kid in one district — who have things that you could not begin to compete with,” she added. “And that’s where you have to at least have the comparable test scores and the comparable programs.

“Even if you don’t have the same bells and whistles, you have to be able to say, ‘We can keep up, and here’s how we keep up.’”

Particularly in the urban areas of Chicago, Catholic schools are staying ahead. Sister McCaughey said that students who attend Catholic elementary schools in the city have a 96 percent chance of continuing on to high school, compared with only a 34 percent chance for public school children. And those who graduate from a Catholic high school have a 95 percent chance of going to college, she said, making Catholic schools “a way out of poverty” for many families.

National SAT scores tell a similar story about Catholic education’s benefits, as students of religious-affiliated schools consistently score higher in all areas than public school students. But even though academics are a major concern for parents — and although 15 percent of the nation’s current Catholic school students are not Catholic — the faith component of Catholic education still remains vital.

“The more I talk with people around the country, the one thing that is very, very clear is that parents want a good academic education that is rooted in our Catholic faith,” said Curtin. “What they find very important is the training of their children in the Catholic faith and the values that we believe as a Church.”

Finding alternative models

To remain viable, some Catholic schools are looking to new educational models and structures as a means of combating the loss of students.

Sister McCaughey said that Chicago is experimenting with several new ideas for Catholic schools to best meet the needs of local families. The archdiocese next year will open its first middle school for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders with a curriculum focused on math and science. They have also considered such options as year-round schools, primary centers and language academies as alternative models, Sister McCaughey said.

“We are looking at things that are going to differentiate a school and make it a true value for the parents and the kids,” she said.

According to Curtin, one of the trends that shows real promise is the concept of regional schools that are supported by multiple parishes.

Curtin pointed to the case of a school he helped to open in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., in 1997 to serve a desire among local parishioners to give their children a Catholic education. Understanding that no individual parish in the area could support its own school, Curtin said that they chose to create a regional school that served seven local parishes. Twelve years later, the school has seen steady growth and continues to thrive, he said.

He added that such a model may be a viable solution for struggling schools in the future.

“That’s the kind of thing I think we need to look at down the road when we hear of schools that are in trouble,” he said. “Could we put two schools together to serve the same geographic area? That to me is a creative model that really helps to spread the cost and the responsibility of the operation of that school among parishes.”

Eriksen agrees that the goal should not be keeping schools open out of a sense of tradition, but finding ways to serve the true mission of Catholic education.

“We are a Church of people, not a Church of places,” Eriksen said. “We can’t get as emotional about keeping buildings open over maximizing the number of kids we can educate.”

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.