How Catholic schools adapt to boost enrollment

Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 01, 2015

Changing neighborhood populations, economic challenges and urban flight have taken a toll on many area Catholic schools. Efforts to adapt to a changing population and open schools to all neighborhood families — whether Catholic or not — may allow many of these schools to thrive again.

In the last decade, 20 Catholic schools closed or consolidated within the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which encompasses 112 schools in 19 counties including Dayton. Enrollment continues to decline in the schools remaining.

Enrollment for the 2014-15 school year (this year’s number aren’t available yet) stood at 42,107. That’s a drop of 19.5 percent since the 1996-97 school year.

Some good news: statistics for the past five years show a slowdown in the decline.

“We’ve made a strong commitment to make sure schools are accessible, available and affordable to anyone who wants to come,” said Catholic Schools Superintendent Jim Rigg. “We’ve introduced a number of initiatives, including recruiting in neighborhoods that are changing and a Latino initiative.

“One reason why more Catholics don’t come to the schools, or they leave, is because of affordability,” Rigg added. “We try to keep the schools affordable. The cost per pupil is dramatically lower than public schools.”

Tuition Help, Reaching Out

For the first time since the 1950s, the archdiocese launched a large capital campaign in January that will earmark $50 million for tuition assistance. The money will be distributed based on need to families that don't qualify for EdChoice, an Ohio Department of Education program that allows students in underperforming public schools go to private schools. The impact of the tuition assistance program likely won’t be felt in schools until the 2017-18 school year, Rigg said.

But local Catholic schools already have seen the benefits of actively reaching out to new communities. Since hiring a Latino outreach coordinator in 2011, enrollment among that population has increased by more than 115 percent.

“Many Latino families identify themselves as Catholic,” Rigg said. “We want to be present for these families, the same way we were there for the European immigrants 150 years ago.”

When Jeff Eiser took on the role of principal at St. Clement School in St. Bernard in 2010, the school’s future was bleak. With an enrollment of just 145 children, it didn’t seem financially viable to keep the school that served preschool through eighth-grade students open.

Eiser and his wife — a Latina who quit a job as a school librarian to volunteer as librarian at St. Clement — set out to present the school as an educational option to the growing population of Latino families in the area. Talking to Latino families at local swimming pools, laundromats and various neighborhood gathering places allowed the Eisers, and the several bilingual teachers working at the school, to build relationships within the Latino community.


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“This is a 164-year-old Franciscan school and has always served immigrants,” Eiser said. “The Franciscans philosophy is that everyone is welcome.”

Welcoming All, Regardless of Faith

At St. Clement, Eiser said they also reached out to longtime families in the community who'd fallen away from the Catholic Church. Many of them have reconnected with their own faith by choosing to send their children to St. Clement.

A diverse school enrollment for 2015-16 has reached 260 students, and the school’s financial viability has improved, Eiser said. Fifty percent of students use the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program or Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program. A second EdChoice program allows students in kindergarten through second grade to use public money based on income, not public school performance. An additional 15 percent of students receive tuition assistance through the parish.

The Catholic Inner-City Schools Fund financially supports eight elementary schools with a high poverty level in the urban core of Cincinnati. Launched in the 1970s in response to rapidly declining enrollment in the urban schools, Catholic leadership formed the fund to “put out the welcome mat for everyone, not just Catholics,” said Director Cary Powell.

The Catholic Inner-City Schools Fund raises about $2.6 million every year to support the vulnerable schools in economically depressed areas. Every student in those schools receives support, and just 25 percent are Catholic. Enrollment across the eight schools was 1,400 in 2011 and has increased to 1,800 this year, Powell said.

One of the eight schools, St. Joseph School in the West End, has seen an enrollment gain of more than 80 students in just two years.

Fears of possible closure mounted when enrollment dropped to fewer than 100 students in 2006 -- after much of the housing immediately surrounding the school was demolished, and St. Joseph went from a neighborhood school to one where most students rode buses from other areas, according to Principal Dionne Partee.

Today, more than 280 students attend preschool through eighth grade at the school, which has been a fixture in the West End since 1847.

Partee attributes the enrollment uptick to a new blended learning program with increased use of technology and collaborative learning; word of mouth; and a nurtured legacy among graduates.

“There is a huge legacy here. I am a graduate, and so is our pastor,” Partee said. “We’ve passed out information, added things to the church bulletin, but there are a lot of word-of-mouth referrals.”

The school has encouraged families to talk to their friends and neighbors about their experience at the school and even offered incentives such as a waived registration fee for referring other families. Only about 20 percent of St. Joseph students are Catholic, and at least 70 percent utilize EdChoice.