Catholic schools at a crossroads with enrollment

By Jim Jaworski

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, June 12 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Mary Kate Cahill listens during her IB English 3 Honors Class Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at St. Scholastica Academy in Chicago, Illinois. The school is closing their doors permanently in a couple weeks except for a senior academy, which will take place for one more year.

Nancy Stone, Mct

Enlarge photo»

CHICAGO — If what has happened to St. Scholastica Academy in Chicago illustrates the grand rise and decline of Catholic schooling over the past century, supporters hope Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen is more telling of its future.

St. Scholastica, a girls Catholic high school founded in the 1860s, has struggled for years with low enrollment and closed last week after holding graduation on Sunday, June 10.

Meanwhile, the coed Cristo Rey school, which opened in 1996, has more than twice the number of applicants as there are open spots.

Experts on parochial schools believe Catholic education may be at a turning point after decades of declining enrollment. The Chicago Archdiocese has seen its second straight increase in elementary enrollment. And the Big Shoulders Fund, a nonprofit that provides financial support and scholarships for inner-city Catholic schools, brought in its largest single-event haul of $6.25 million at a dinner May 24.

"We are going from stopping the bleeding to 'Let's have a celebration,' " said Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools.

But experts warn Catholic schools still face myriad challenges, some that go back at least 50 years.

In terms of enrollment and number of schools, Catholic education hit its high point in the 1960s, according to estimates by the National Center for Education Statistics. At the start of that decade, there were close to 13,000 schools across the nation with about 5.3 million students. Both numbers declined steadily over the years — with a period of stabilization in the 1990s — to nearly 7,000 schools and about 2 million students for the 2010-11 year.

During that same 50-year period, Chicago Catholic school enrollment dropped from 344,000 to about 86,500. Public school enrollment also dropped starting in the early 1970s, but unlike Catholic schools, it started to rebound in the late 1980s. With the closing of St. Scholastica — announced in March — there will be 255 Catholic schools in the Chicago Archdiocese. There were 526 in 1960.

David Figlio, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, said Catholic schools had a "century of strength" coming from the initial explosion of construction starting in the late 1800s, but demographics began to shift, spreading out the Catholic population.

"Back then, people weren't living in Mount Prospect," Figlio said. "They were living in Chicago, they were living in Evanston and Oak Park, a tight area where all the Catholic schools were built.

"These schools are expensive," he continued. "They aren't on wheels. You can't just move them to where the Catholics are."

In addition, the city has seen a recent influx of charter and magnet schools, as well as other religious schools, creating new competition.

Meanwhile, the finances of public schools have changed, largely because of a drastic shift in who is teaching the students, said the Rev. Tony Dosen, a Catholic priest who has taught at DePaul University for 15 years.

Until the 1960s, he said, the classes were taught predominantly by religious sisters and brothers, who got a small stipend they typically reinvested back into the parish or school.

"There wouldn't have even been a Catholic school system without the sisters, plain and simple," Dosen said.

Now they represent only 3 percent of staff, according to the National Catholic Education Association. As such, the financial burden has largely shifted from the parish to the parents, with tuition and fees covering 74 percent of educational costs, according to the Chicago archdiocese.