Grant Hindsley, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — After 97 years, Our Lady of Lourdes School was closing — enrollment had dwindled to just 35 children last year at what was once one of the West Coast's biggest Catholic schools.
But with a new principal who knocked on doors, offered X Box video game consoles to kids who brought in a friend, and recruited families who lost their bid in a charter school lottery, the East Los Angeles school stayed open — 132 pupils are registered for this fall.
Call it educational evangelism. Roman Catholic schools are seeing years of marketing efforts starting to pay off in spite of tough competition from charter schools and the lingering effects of a devastating recession.
After seeing years of relentless enrollment decline, several key dioceses across the nation saw students trickle back to their schools over the past year. They say it comes down to a cultural change in Catholic education that has taken a while to implement but is finally taking root.
"If we want to continue to survive, we have to think like a business," said Domenico Pilato, who heads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' school marketing project.
Nationally, Catholic school enrollment is still waning — closing 167 schools and losing 34,000 pupils over the past year. But educators say the number of schools with waiting lists increased by 171 and 34 schools opened.
The archdioceses of Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, which have all employed aggressive marketing programs, have seen student upticks, offering hope the exodus can be turned around on a larger scale.
In Los Angeles, where enrollment had plummeted by more than 2,000 students a year for the past decade, elementary enrollment increased by 300 students last year. In Boston, the decline slowed to a 20-year low of 1 percent. Chicago, the nation's largest diocesan school system, saw city elementary enrollment increase by 8 percent.
Smaller dioceses also report gains. In Lafayette, Ind., where two schools closed in 2009, 300 new kids enrolled and plans are afoot to open an elementary school. Bridgeport, Conn., reported a 5 percent enrollment jump.
"Catholic schools are beginning to market and promote themselves," said Shane Martin, dean of education at Loyola Marymount University. "It's really about getting the word out about this option. People don't know much about it."
Schools realized the need to start marketing more aggressively some years ago, but it's been a slow shift in a conservative environment that historically never had to advertise itself.
In Los Angeles, some high school principals reluctant to take on marketing duties had to be replaced, said Monsignor Sabato Pilato, superintendent of high schools, who is Domenico's brother.
"Something different had to happen," the monsignor said.
Margaret Dames, superintendent of Bridgeport's Catholic schools, said she went through a personal learning curve. "I wasn't used to marketing," she said. "We're getting better at it."
It's a far cry from the 1960s when Catholic families flocked to parochial schools staffed mainly by priests and nuns, who earned a pittance and were renowned for wielding rulers to rap knuckles and check skirt length. Catholic school enrollment hit a high of 5.2 million in 13,000 schools during that decade.
These days, enrollment stands around 2 million in 6,800 schools that cost more to run. With religious vocations attracting few entrants, lay teachers staff 97 percent of classrooms and schools must cope with payroll, pensions and health insurance.
In more recent years, charter schools, which are autonomous publicly funded schools, have also siphoned off students in urban neighborhoods where Catholic schools once catered to European immigrants and then carved out a niche with minority pupils. Some charters even adopt uniforms resembling parochial plaids.
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