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.
Some Chicago-area schools have made changes to both improve finances and attract more students. One such change, switching high schools from single-sex to coed, may yield only short-term benefits, Dosen said.
"Those girls, who would have normally gone somewhere else, got drawn into a coed school, which just eats away at (another Catholic school's) enrollment," he said.
Nationally, about 32 percent of Catholic high schools are single-sex, compared with only 1 percent of elementary schools.
Secondary enrollments continue to suffer. Despite a small increase in elementary enrollment in the last two school years, the archdiocese saw a 1 percent decline overall last year and hasn't had a one-year increase in total enrollment since 1965.
As the archdiocese tries to position itself for the future, that may mean closing a school in one area to open one in another with better growth potential, such as Pilsen or the South Loop, McCaughey said.
While some schools struggle, experts point to bright spots like St. Angela School in Austin, which was on the verge of closing in 2005. A large marketing push, financed by the Big Shoulders Fund, has helped double enrollment since then. The group has hired marketing and recruitment directors at about 30 schools, with more planned.
"St. Angela's flies in the face of the enrollment numbers, of anything that is happening nationally," said Joshua Hale, executive director of Big Shoulders. He argues that the solution to recent enrollment trends is more marketing.
Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Education Association, feels Catholic schools are hitting a turning point, mostly by focusing on new geographic areas. She pointed to 34 new schools, many in the Southwest, and a greater focus on schools in small to midsize communities.
"We are starting to see some positive trends," she said. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, yes, it is stabilizing."
Both nationally and locally, Catholic educators see an enrollment opportunity with Hispanics — the fastest growing group in the United States between 2000 and 2010, rising 43 percent to 50.5 million. Hispanics now represent 13.9 percent of all Catholic school students, according to the National Catholic Education Association.
Still, there are a variety of hurdles, including cultural and language barriers, that could be hampering enrollment, said Carmen Aguinaco, president of the Chicago-based National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry. Also, it can still be seen as out of reach for some Hispanics who, even if they can afford it, assume Catholic schools are prohibitively expensive, Aguinaco said.
Catholic school tuition has been steadily rising, especially in the last 10 years. The national average tuition for a Catholic secondary school was a little more than $8,000 in 2012, more than double the average tuition of $4,000 in 2002. In primary schools, average tuition is about $3,700, a 67 percent increase from roughly $2,200 in 2002.
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Cristo Rey is one example experts cite as a creative model for low-income areas. The bilingual school, consisting almost entirely of first-generation Americans with immigrant parents from Mexico, has students attend school for four days and work one day per week at an entry-level job, which covers 70 percent of the tuition cost.
Dosen, of DePaul, said Cristo Rey is one example of a new way of thinking that can help Catholic schools adapt to the future.
"Previously, we were the only other show in town" besides public schools, Dosen said. "Now, with all these other options — charter schools, magnet schools — where do we see ourselves fitting in?"
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