Suburban Catholic schools growing rapidly

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-09 09:11:54-05

This is the last 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 farthest Cincinnati suburbs outside of the Interstate 275 loop.

CINCINNATI — While some Catholic schools across the region have closed in the last decade, Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School in Liberty Township is actually building an addition to add 125 more students.

Welcome to the suburbs beyond the Interstate 275 loop — where Catholic grade schools are mostly bustling places with large student populations. 

That’s because many suburban areas are seeing an influx of residents seeking larger, newer and often less expensive homes and a quiet lifestyle. Compared with census data from 25 years ago, today's population has increased 34 percent in West Chester, 62 percent in Mason and 75 percent in Liberty Township.  

RELATED: Cincinnati's urban Catholic schools growing despite fewer Catholics.

Many of those areas have highly rated public school systems. But for people seeking a Catholic education, the options are far fewer and more spread out than areas like the west side of Cincinnati, where Catholic schools are often separated by less than a mile.

Mother Teresa Catholic Elementary School is a private grade school, which follows Archdiocesan curriculum, but is not attached to a parish. It serves 466 students from across Butler County. The school has had a waiting list for years because it is the only Catholic school in Liberty Township. So school officials launched a capital campaign to raise $3.2 million and are building an initial addition that will add 125 more seats in the school for the 2016-2017 school year. The expansion plan allows for the addition of more space as the need arises.

RELATED: Suburban Catholic schools inside I-275 loop vary widely.

“The area is rapidly growing in West Chester and Liberty Township in population growth and job growth,” said Noel Balster, Mother Teresa development specialist. “A lot of people are moving in or building homes, a lot of young families that fit our demographic for a Catholic elementary school.”

Suburban Catholic schools are often associated with their own large parishes, which can help bolster enrollment.

In addition to rapid growth in suburbs like Liberty Township, Mason and West Chester, there are only a few Catholic school options to meet the demand.

The robust enrollment of St. Susanna in Mason shows the benefits of being one of only a handful of Catholic options in the northern suburbs. More than 700 students attend the kindergarten through eighth grade school, a bump of more than 100 kids compared to 2008 enrollment.  

“We have a large area to draw from so it helps as far as keeping the school viable,” said Kevan Hartman, principal of St. Susanna. “I think people do want an alternative to public education. People like that we are able to give the message of Christ daily and the Catholic identity is incorporated into everything we do at the school.”

Students come from mostly the Mason and Lakota school districts, with a few from other nearby districts represented. 

While the school doesn’t lose a large number of kids each year, Hartman points out that the community is more transient than he experienced at schools on the west side, where he had worked previously.

Many of the students who come and go have been relocated for a parent’s job through companies like Procter & Gamble, Cintas or General Electric.

St. Susanna's student body is 94 percent Catholic and 97 percent white. Unlike urban Catholic schools, the suburban school doesn’t have any students using EdChoice state scholarships, which are based on either a family’s need or the quality of their local public school. 

The suburban public schools in surrounding areas are highly rated and the average family income typically doesn't meet state guidelines for financial need, so there are few EdChoice students in these Catholic schools.

Thirty years ago, Barb Beitman moved from the Deer Park/Silverton area, where she grew up, into West Chester because she and her husband were seeking a newly built home with a big yard, two-car garage and more room in which to raise their family. Beitman taught at her alma mater, the now closed St. John the Baptist in Deer Park, even after the move. When her oldest daughter started first grade at nearby St. Susanna, Beitman got a job there teaching fifth grade because the school was expanding. 

"The area has grown so much. When we came there were one or two subdivisions and now all the farms are large subdivisions," Beitman said. "The school has tripled since I got here. In 1995, there was one class of each grade, and I was hired because they were adding a second class of fifth grade. Now, there are three classes for all." 

At many of the suburban schools, most of the students belong to the parish that runs the school they attend.

St. John the Baptist in Harrison is close to the border of Indiana, so its 348 students come from both states with about one-third coming across the state line. The enrollment, although a far cry from St. John 500 students in the 1990s, has held fairly steady in the past several years and the school is considered stable, Principal Susan Meymann said.  

The school, a fixture of Harrison since 1872, is a mix of families that have lived in Harrison for generations and an emergence of young families moving to the area for land availability, new homes and the friendly community, Meymann said. Not a particularly diverse community, St. John is made up mostly of Catholic parish children. The school serves a need for what Meymann calls a strong, traditional Catholic community, and is the only Catholic school within the Southwest Local School District.

Not every suburban school is growing. 

St. Columban School, located in Loveland, has 610 children in the building, down from 690 a few years ago.

“We’re down a little due to demographics. Loveland’s public school numbers are down in kindergarten and first grade and our numbers are right in line with their percentage,” Principal Jo Rhoten said. “We feel vibrant, and like we have great programs, so we are not concerned.”

A St. Columban kindergarten student works with her teacher, Elyse Tollefson. Kindergarten enrollment is down at the Loveland Catholic school.

Known for its popular afterschool drama program — which was formed to place an emphasis on more than academics and sports — and its science programs, St. Columban benefits from a healthy parish population, which is a support to the school, as well as a pool of potential students.

St. Colomban is not the only Catholic school in Loveland. Opened in the mid-1980s, St. Margaret of York School has a similarly large parish population and the school has 700 students from 10 school districts and 14 zip codes.