Cincinnati's suburban Catholic schools vary widely within Interstate 275 loop
By Anya Rao, WCPO Contributor
7:00 AM, Feb 8, 2016
9:15 AM, Feb 9, 2016
This is part two in a series of three articles exploring the health of Catholic grade schools throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This article focuses on how Catholic schools are doing in the suburbs within the Interstate 275 loop.
CINCINNATI — If Catholic schools nationally are struggling to maintain enrollment, you wouldn’t know it by looking at St. Ignatius in Monfort Heights.
Cincinnati’s largest Catholic grade school boasts 1,047 students and is larger than many high schools. There’s a waiting list to enroll because it draws from a huge parish and 26 different zip codes.
Contrast that with Our Lady of Grace in Groesbeck. While it has a healthy 438 students this year, it is the product of four schools merging in 2008 because they were too small to continue on their own.
And that’s how it goes for Catholic schools between Cincinnati’s urban core and the Interstate 275 loop — an area that contains most of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s schools. Enrollments vary considerably, with factors including parish size, demographics, local competition and location.
Enrollment in Archdiocese of Cincinnati schools is down almost 20 percent from 20 years ago, reflecting a national trend. There are more than 700 fewer students this year from last year. Two schools closed at the end of last school year — St. James of the Valley and St. Peter Claver — which resulted in some of that enrollment decline.
Representatives for the Archdiocese suggest there might be demographics at play. Birth rates were down during the time when current kindergartners were born. There were 155,721 babies born in Ohio in 2000, compared with 139,034 in 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s website.
In Butler, Warren, Clermont and Hamilton counties, 11 percent of all school-aged children are enrolled in Catholic schools, said Susan Gibbons, interim superintendent of Catholic schools. Catholic high schools are up slightly and grade schools are down slightly compared to last year.
“We are the sixth largest in the nation in terms of our Catholic school population and the 38th largest diocese, so we have a really healthy population of students in our school,” Gibbons said.
Plenty From Which to Draw
For giant St. Ignatius, the problem isn’t drawing students, it’s where to draw the line on how many to accept. The school is at capacity and there is a waiting list to enroll. Because the church is so large and parishioners get first priority when it comes to enrollment, which is the case at most parochial schools, the school is made up almost entirely of parish children.
“We are intentional about our program,” St. Ignatius’ Principal Tim Reilly said. “We know we are a big school, and we don’t want the kids to become a number.”
Reilly describes the school’s population as stable. When families move it is likely to be down the street and not out of the area, he said.
“The families go all the way through with us,” Reilly said. “It makes education simpler when you can pick up right where you left off last year.”
For parent Sarah Mierke, who drives past other Catholic schools closer to home to get to St. Ignatius, the large size was an attraction, not a drawback.
“Some people see such a big school as a negative, but we see it as a perk,” Mierke said. “It still has a small school feel.”
On the east side of town, Anderson Township’s Immaculate Heart of Mary doesn’t quite have the numbers of St. Ignatius, but is definitely in demand.
Immaculate Heart has 810 students from preschool to eighth grade. There was a waiting list four years ago for kindergarten. Immaculate Heart had the space, so it opened another class and now has four kindergarten classes.
“I know some Catholic schools are seeing a decline,” Principal Krista Devine said. “But we are steady and growing slightly.”
While more of a mid-sized school, All Saints School in Kenwood is another that draws from a large base. All Saints has 478 students this year and draws from all over Greater Cincinnati, including kids from 36 zip codes and 28 school districts. A handful of students come from as far as Finneytown, Mount Orab and Northern Kentucky.
“It feels more like a high school region because there is a destination high school (Moeller) right next door to us, and Blue Ash is an economic engine, plus we are right by I-71 and Cross County (Highway),” All Saints Principal Dan Stringer said.
Surviving Among the Big Schools
The west side of Cincinnati is somewhat unique in that there is a large concentration of Catholic grade schools in neighborhoods like Cheviot, Westwood and Bridgetown, creating greater competition for students. There are almost twice as many Catholic grade schools west of Interstate 75 than there are east of Interstate 71 — with a small number of schools serving communities in between.
“Each school there has its own identity and a strong tradition. They really want to remain as separate entities,” Gibbons said of the smaller schools on the west side.
While Gibbons said there are no immediate plans to close or merge any schools anywhere in the Archdiocese, it has happened in the past. For some schools, merging was the best option.
In 2008, St. Ann, St. Therese Little Flower, Assumption and St. Margaret Mary schools merged to form Our Lady of Grace in Groesbeck. That regional school has 438 students enrolled this year.
The west side has a mix of small schools with enrollments under 200and several mid-size schools with populations in the 400-550 range.
Mergers aren’t unique to the west side. Some of the areas just north of the city have seen the impact of fewer students choosing Catholic schools.
For some schools, keeping in the middle of the enrollment pack feels right.
Dent resident David Bareswilt, whose son attends St. Jude School in Bridgetown, felt like that mid-sized school was the right fit for his son. St. Jude has 474 students enrolled this school year.
“Visitation and St. Ignatius seemed so big. We liked that St. Jude’s grades were capped at 60 kids,” Bareswilt said. “St. Al’s (St. Aloysius Gonzaga) is down the street, but we thought it was too small. Plus, we already felt at home at St. Jude. I had gotten into coaching basketball there before I even had kids, so we knew people there so we didn’t look at other schools in depth because we already loved the sense of community.”
Bareswilt grew up on the west side in Cheviot, and he said he sees some of the west side Catholic schools shrinking.
“You hope these (schools) can all continue,” Bareswilt said. “It’s a unique thing, a real sense of pride.”
Nativity School in Pleasant Ridge draws mostly from its home neighborhood and those nearby. Many of the students walk to school. Nativity holds a steady enrollment of 400, in part by emphasizing its global program, which includes two international student exchanges each year.
“We are holding strong and it has a lot to do with our global program and focus on the arts. That’s a big draw,” Nativity Principal Chris Shisler said. “Enrollment has been pretty steady for 10 years, even in a time of decline that most places experienced in the recession. It didn’t impact us dramatically.”
At St. Cecilia School in Oakley, adapting to the changing face of the population helped buoy enrollment and spawn growth. The school’s enrollment dropped to 163 a few years ago. This year, there are 232 kids and Principal Michael Goedde expects continued growth.
“We had to reshape what the school is and gain an understanding of our demographics and the changing landscape in Catholic education,” Goedde said. “When we addressed that, we had to look at what our school was and what we wanted it to be.”
Adding a preschool and conducting intentional outreach to the burgeoning Hispanic population in areas nearby, allowed St. Cecilia to grow.
“A lot of the parishes can’t be the traditional neighborhood parish school they once were. We’ve had to change and adapt,” Goedde said. “So our outreach efforts go well beyond the parish and yet, we have to have that parish support there because they are still subsidizing the education of all the kids here.”