The number of students enrolled in Catholic schools declined by 285 from last year, according to the diocesan schools office, and while that is a cause for concern, the superintendent and several principals said the figures are only part of Catholic education.
The numbers are recorded annually using the enrollment as of Sept. 30. This year, 9,799 children are enrolled in Catholic education — including parish early education programs — compared with 10,084 in 2016-17.
Most of the schools are within a few students of last year’s numbers, while some have seen significant drops. A number of schools have seen increases.
“Two hundred and eighty-five kids is certainly something to be concerned about,” said Lou De Angelo, superintendent of schools. “Ten kids is something to be concerned about. And what I said to the teachers at our professional day is … recruitment and retention is everybody’s business because we’re about that every day. If you’re a good teacher, if they like you, (parents) want to send their kid to be taught by you. If you’re a good administrator, if you run a good school, people want to come there.”
De Angelo noted that the diocese has seen its total enrollment in a slight downward trend over the past 10 to 12 years. Increases in tuition have played a part, as has the proliferation of charter schools, improved traditional public schools and other alternatives.
In Delaware, the state does not offer financial support to Catholic school families in the form of vouchers or tuition assistance, and Maryland’s BOOST program only helps some families. That’s why Share in the Spirit, the collection that helps provide tuition assistance, other campaigns and weekly parish offertories are so important, he said.
Healy Foundation help
Enrollment management is handled locally at each school.
One of the changes De Angelo has noticed recently is that many elementary schools are creating an office or designating a person to work on that specifically. Four schools are working with the Healey Foundation to address enrollment and have hired full-time advancement directors.
Immaculate Conception School in Elkton, Md., is one of them, and Emily Murphy is the advancement director. The school is at 144 students this year, down from 180 a year ago. Murphy, who joined ICS in September, said they have implemented some new marketing ideas, such as increasing visibility in community events such as the Fall Fest.
“We’ve gotten really positive feedback,” she said. “One of the challenges we face is making sure people know the school is here. The excitement generated by our partnership with Healey has been invigorating.”
Principal Jeanne Dinkle added that parents now have more options than ever when selecting a school, and “we have to be able to sell ourselves better than we’ve done in the past. We have to be able to toot our own horn.”
Despite reduced enrollment, Immaculate Conception offers all the same academic programs as in the past, and extracurricular activities are expanding, Dinkle said. The number of eighth-graders who receive high school scholarship offers is growing.
She said the pastor, Oblate Father Jim Yeakel, and the parish and finance councils have remained steadfast in their support of the school. They are hopeful that the partnership with Healey will help them rebuild their numbers.
“A consistent comment of current families is how they like the small class sizes, allowing for more attention to each student. I don’t mind small. I just don’t want anemic. We want to have more students here to benefit from the programs that we have and to strengthen our sustainability,” Dinkle said.
Adding new students
All Saints School in Elsmere is another Healey school that has seen its enrollment drop, but principal Mary Elizabeth Muir pointed out that there are 44 new students this year, only one of whom transferred from another Catholic institution.
“Forty-three students new to Catholic school, that’s the story. We’re not just passing children around from school to school. We’ve introduced Catholic education to 43 new students this year,” she said.
The school has increased its Hispanic population, part of an effort to make Catholic education available to families that previously thought they couldn’t afford it, she said.
All Saints’ kindergarten numbers are up a bit, she said, and the school is introducing a fall open house and a program called Little Saints. Beginning on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, the school will open on occasion to families of preschool-age children to take advantage of the services the school has to offer. This first one will include story time with first-graders, an introduction to the school’s robots, and Mass with Bishop Malooly.
Muir added that All Saints is looking to create a single tuition instead of parishioner and non-parishioner rates, and they have monthly Mass at each of the parishes that sponsor the school so that students can thank the congregations for supporting All Saints. She is confident in All Saints’ future.
“We are not going anywhere. I can guarantee you that,” she said.
Knocking on all doors
The number of students has increased in several places, including at Holy Cross in Dover, which is up to 453 from 442. It benefits from being the only Catholic elementary school in Delaware south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, but officials there still work hard on recruiting new students and keeping the ones they have.
“You would think that would put us in a unique position for attracting Catholic families,” principal Linda Pollitt said. “But while we may be the only game in town, we have to market ourselves like we’re not.
“We have to knock on all doors. We have to greet with a welcoming attitude. ‘You are welcome in this place. This is the best place for your child.’”
Jill Zink, the director of Holy Cross’ marketing and public relations, noted that there are 97 new children in the school this year. The school has expanded its pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds and has added one for 3-year-olds. Pollitt said a focus on the lower grades means Holy Cross might add a fourth kindergarten class next year.
When parents choose
That is an important age, according to De Angelo. Parents tend to choose schools for their children in kindergarten, then check their options again when their students are entering sixth grade and high school.
“Once parents make a choice, whether it’s kindergarten, sixth grade or ninth grade, they tend to stay with us,” he said.
Zink has created Take a Tour Tuesday, something she and Pollitt said was one of the reasons for the expanded pre-K. Holy Cross begins reregistration efforts in November, not February, offering discounted application fees before New Year’s Day. And the school relies on word of mouth, which, Zink said, remains one of the most powerful sales tools.
Muir, whose doctoral degree is on the viability of urban Catholic schools, said a market remains for religious-based education.
“Clearly, people are still seeking Catholic education,” she said. “People talk about competing with charter schools and other nonpublic schools, but we offer something no one else offers, a Catholic education, one that is steeped in our faith.”
Faith and academics
De Angelo stressed that the change in numbers does not reflect a change in the quality of the education offered. Standardized test scores are in the top quarter in the country. Among high school students, SAT scores are at the top of all the public school districts in Delaware and compare favorably with the best charter schools.
The diocese and the individual schools remain focused on recruitment and retention, on making the best financial decisions and, most importantly, on faith and academics, he continued.
“And we think if people take a look at the product, they’re going to be willing to make the sacrifice. Not that it’s easy, but because it’s important,” he said.