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Between tradition and location

As enrollment in Catholic schools continues to decline, planners are growing more careful of where new schools will go and of how to attract students
Saturday, May 19, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:27 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Students wait for their parents to pick them up at the end of the day outside Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Columbia. According to a study, more than 5.2 million children attend parochial elementary and secondary schools.

When a business starts to lose money and most of its customers, two solutions arise: close or move. Catholic schools, though not often thought of as businesses, are facing these same options.

Catholic schools reached a peak in attendance in 1960, with the majority of schools and students living in inner cities and urban areas. More than 40 years later, the number of schools and students enrolled has dropped by about half.

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As a result, the Catholic Church has had to re-evaluate its presence in the inner city and its commitment to educate students of all backgrounds while remaining financially viable. This search for balance has led to a new breed of Catholic schools that are intentionally built in thriving locations, where families are likely to be able to afford the cost of a private-school education.

The proposed Catholic high school in Columbia is part of this new breed. The group of people behind the campaign to build the school west of U.S. 63 on the north side of Gans Road sought an area that was not only convenient, but capable of offering financial stability. John Stansfield, general chairman in the campaign, said the area selected for the school is one of the fastest-growing in the city, both residentially and commercially.

“We were very intentional about deciding on a location for the school,” Stansfield said. “There will be high-end shopping nearby, a very nice housing development, and 85 percent of its border will be a city park.”

However, the new emphasis on location presents a challenge: maintaining the traditional diversity found in Catholic schools, especially those that once thrived in urban areas.

The school’s planners, which include the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, hope the location will attract more families able to afford the estimated $5,000 per year tuition, which will allow the school to offer financial aid to more lower-income families.

“For a new school to be successful, the diocese needs to be entrepreneurial in a way,” said Mike Alex, president of St. James Academy in Johnson County, Kan., a high school that opened in 2005. “It is like opening a brand-new business: the students aren’t guaranteed and the funding is not guaranteed,” he said.

In 1960, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than 5.2 million children attended 12,893 parochial elementary and secondary schools. By the 2005-2006 school year, the number of students receiving a Catholic school education had dropped by more than half to less than 2.4 million. According to the annual report of the National Catholic Education Association, there were 7,589 Catholic schools in the United States at the start of the 2005-06 school year.

John Convey, provost at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a prominent researcher of Catholic education, said that the change in Catholic school demographics reflected the larger changes in American society. “Immigrants started Catholic schools in the cities 100 years ago, many of which were very close to each other,” Convey said. “Now, with people moving to suburbs, the demand for these schools is just not there.”

Brother John Casey, assistant executive director of the department of secondary schools at the National Catholic Education Association, said the Church often waited too long before deciding to close many urban parochial schools.

“The church and school exist for the preservation of the mission, not the preservation of a building,” Casey said. “If the community supporting a church and school moves, then the church and school must also move. In fact, sometimes the church is the slowest to move or change.”

The decline in the number of urban parochial schools has also had a profound impact on the quality of education in those areas. In a 1997 study of the effect of Catholic secondary schooling, Derek Neal, an associate professor in economics at the University of Chicago, found that the probability of inner-city students graduating from high school rose from 62 percent to at least 88 percent when the students attended a Catholic high school.

“In this country, Catholic schools bring a long history of excellence, especially in the inner city. Schools have reached out to children of other faiths to bring not just education, but also structure,” said Patrick Darcy, principal of the Columbia Catholic School, which accepts children in kindergarten through eighth grade. “But when you can’t pay the bills, some hard decisions have to be made. Nobody wants to close, I’ll put it to you that way.”

As Alex put it, finding the right location for a new Catholic school has become a double-edged sword. To avoid the same fate as their urban counterparts, newer Catholic schools seek areas of upward mobility that often lack the diversity of backgrounds and income levels that Catholic schools have historically attracted.

Alex describes Johnson County, Kan., as a “pretty affluent area.” It ranks first in Kansas for the greatest percent change in population from 2000 to 2006, according to U.S. Census statistics. The location of St. James Academy was chosen after organizers invested more than $100,000 in feasibility and demographic studies, said Alex, who expects the school to grow to more than 600 students by the time it graduates its first senior class in 2009.

Alex said St. James Academy plans to give out $400,000 in financial assistance next year, thanks largely to the benefits of location.

“In order to do that,” he said, “you need to be in an area that can draw enough people who can pay to make the budget work.”

Barbara Burgoon, the school’s principal, said one factor in the school’s location was an expected housing boom. However, she said, local housing construction has slowed and much of the school’s growth is now coming from a wider geographic area, including “kids from across the state line” in Missouri.

Columbia Catholic School has watched its enrollment steadily increase, which gives the organizers of the campaign for a parochial high school confidence that they will be able to raise at least $10 million for the project. While the school and the diocese will offer financial assistance to students in need, scholarships and grants have not always guaranteed that lower-income students have access to Catholic schools.

As Catholic schools have moved farther from urban areas, the need for transportation has increased, said Margaret Lyons, secretary of education for the Diocese of Cleveland, which has the sixth-largest Catholic school system in the nation.

Lyons said some Cleveland parochial students can take a public-school bus to school, while other parochial schools have purchased their own buses to extend their reach in the community.

Columbia Catholic School has no buses; its students rely on their own means such as carpooling for transportation to get to and from school, Darcy said.

Despite the lingering questions about transportation, the Columbia Catholic high school will be a “regional” school, committed to attracting students from all over mid-Missouri. Lyons said this approach is being used all over the country, as has the consolidation of smaller schools in order to pool limited resources.

Alex said Catholic schools have also talked about sharing revenue to keep schools open, but putting it into practice has posed problems. “We have always talked about sharing more, but the relationships between schools can be so vast that it is hard to share,” Alex said. “We are not really a school system, but rather, a system of schools. Each school is separately managed and funded.”

While these measures have had some positive impact on students and families, Catholic school closings have a much broader impact. Brother John Casey said that parochial schools are often the heart of a neighborhood or community. He said that after Hurricane Katrina, a business owner in New Orleans kept calling the Catholic high school, asking when they were going to reopen.

“The school finally asked, ‘Why are you calling us?’” Casey recalled. “The businessman said that 57 percent of his business’ revenue came from students and their parents stopping at his store going to and from the school. In New Orleans, when the Catholic schools came back, the people came back.”

Even those whose schools, by virtue of their location are in no danger of closing, lament the changes that have forced so many other parochial schools to shut their doors.

Alex said that balancing the financial realities with the historic mission of the Catholic school will not be easy. But, as the president of a school located in a wealthy area, he hopes Catholic schools will find a way to be accessible to children of different backgrounds.

“I hope we can find a solution in the future,” Alex said. “Someone once told me, ‘People make heroic efforts to save Catholic schools.’”


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