In 2009, after a wave of closures impacted Catholic schools in inner-city Washington, D.C. and its Maryland suburbs, the administration at St. Camillus School looked around and saw an uncertain future — despite a stable enrollment of 250 students. 

After consulting the neighboring parishes and Catholic schools, and with a determination not to abandon its mostly immigrant and African-American populations, the leadership at St. Camillus proposed a completely fresh start.

‘Trust in providence’

Tobias A. Harkleroad, principal of Saint Francis International School, reads to students. Rafael Crisostomo of The Catholic Standard/El Pregonero

First, they chose not to enter into a typical parochial school merger in which one or another of the participating schools was seen as the loser or the winner. Along with nearby St. Mark School and with the support of a third area parish, St. Camillus gave birth to the new St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Md. 

“We closed both schools and allowed them to have a death, and founded a new school,” said Tobias Harkleroad, former principal at Camillus and now at St. Francis International, a graduate of Marymount University who speaks passionately about Catholic education. 

Harkleroad believes the changes required the community and staff to “trust in providence” by creating a modern school engaging in long-term financial planning, marketing and public relations. 

“We wanted it to be a school with a feeling of newness, excitement, promise and not just of keeping the past alive,” Harkleroad said. “We tried to make the sad part quick and move on to the promise of a new school and all the benefits we couldn’t offer with only 250 students.” 

A rallying point

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori in a classroom. Mid-atlantic Catholic schools Consortium

When St. Francis finally opened in 2011, they captured a re-enrollment rate of 90 percent of the St. Camillus students and 70 percent from St. Mark — a high percentage compared with other mergers, which typically retain around 40 percent from a newly closed campus, according to Harkleroad. 

A new preschool program and a needs-based tuition model further pushed enrollment up to 480. Studies suggest Catholic schools are stronger when they have a patron saint or a sponsoring religious community around which to rally and form a charism, so the leadership chose St. Francis of Assisi. 

“If are just holding onto tradition, we run the risk of missing what God has in mind for us,” Harkleroad said. 

The National Catholic Educational Association has reported that approximately 2,000 Catholic schools shut their doors over the past 12 years and that enrollment has dropped by 621,583 students, to just over 2 million today. Rural and inner-city schools were most affected. 

No longer can a large staff of nuns and large-size classes help provide lower operational costs, experts say. Meanwhile tuition-free public charter schools, with their inner-city locations and focus on education fundamentals, have emerged as competition for Catholic schools, a situation compounded by an economy in lingering recession. 

Upward movement

“For the past five years, we have had to work exceptionally hard at keeping our doors open,” said Casey Wichmann, development director at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield, Ill.  A few years ago, the cathedral parish school suffered a setback following a rumor that the school was targeted for closure — overnight, families pulled 25 children out of the school even though the rumor wasn’t true. 

In addition to taking out local newspaper ads, Wichmann purchased a mailing list for a direct-mail campaign inviting 15,000 households to an open house this year when the public schools were closed for spring break. Parents were able to see one-on-one student attention, smaller classes, designated special-needs teachers — and “being able to pray in school is huge,” Wichmann said. 

The school registered 90 percent of the families who came to the open house, and they hope to get back to a total enrollment of 200. 

“We are now in an upward movement and I put a large marketing plan in place in March and April in 2012,” she said. “The economy — people can use that as an excuse. The smaller family size is what is hurting Catholic schools nationwide. People don’t have six to seven children anymore.” 

After serving at a successful girls Catholic high school in New Jersey,  Sister Ellen Cronan, found herself in “mission territory” as a new principal of John Paul II Catholic High School in Tallahassee, Fla., when last year the school was handed hard options: either boost enrollment and raise first $200,000 and months later another $400,000, or close down. 

Through private donations, a community enrollment drive, a bluegrass music festival and even a charity polo match, the school exceeded both its enrollment and fundraising goals to even Sister Cronan’s surprise. 

“I expected people to say, ‘this is a sinking ship and we are walking away,’ but instead people said, ‘We want Catholic education, and are willing to support that.’” 

Now with the help of student transportation grants and Florida voucher credits, John Paul II Catholic High has 162 students — 30 more than it needed to have to start the school year. 

“We had to go out to the community to seek students and show that people see us working to better the school, to keep it alive and grow,” Sister Cronan said. 

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.