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.
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?"
©2012 Chicago Tribune
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