The rise of charters, in turn, has caused public schools to get more competitive with specialties such as magnets, small learning communities, performing arts and language programs.
"Charter schools have affected traditional public schools and private schools, particularly Catholic schools," Martin said. "There's more competition and choice than ever before."
Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, schools superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago, pointed to charters' main advantage over her schools: "The attraction is clearly the freebie."
Catholic school tuition averages $3,700 for elementary grades, and $8,100 for secondary, although many students receive financial aid and fees only pay for about 75 percent of costs. The tab is rounded out by the church and donations.
But Catholic educators say their philosophy of coupling solid academics with moral values yields superior results: 99 percent of students graduate and 85 percent go to college, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. The challenge has been touting those accomplishments in a tradition that values humility.
"Catholic schools have been reluctant to tell their story. It seems like boasting," said Karen Ristau, association president. "We're not particularly boasters."
That's changing. Schools have formed volunteer marketing committees, with some like Chicago and Bridgeport paying $2,500 stipends to parents who take on formal duties.
Los Angeles has one of the more sophisticated programs, which Pilato launched at the behest of his brother, who became alarmed when secondary enrollment sagged by 750 students in 2008.
Domenico Pilato, who had worked in city government outreach projects, organized each archdiocese high school to appoint a parent volunteer team to develop a marketing plan and taught them how to do it.
Now, those schools are required to employ a fulltime marketing director, employees undergo training in everything from social media to customer service, and the initiative has expanded to elementary schools.
Schools sponsor socials with preschool directors, real estate agents, and Spanish-speaking parents, and partner with youth organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and Little Leagues to host events. Kids in catechism classes get a spring break camp at a Catholic school, while parents who bring babies for baptism get a flood of information.
To compete academically, schools offer new programs with iPads, Mandarin Chinese and even a film and media school in Hollywood, as well as a 200-day school year. Most public schools have 180 days
"This is the first year we have not closed a school," said Kevin Baxter, Archodiocese of Los Angeles elementary superintendent. "People are seeing the value."
Still, schools in other places are struggling. In San Diego, where two schools have closed in as many years, Our Lady's School hovers on the brink. The school has 273 pre K-8 students, but most are low-income and cannot pay full tuition.
School President Noel Bishop tried coupons on the back of supermarket receipts. A teacher wore a sandwich-board to advertise an open house. The Virgin of Guadalupe was even incorporated in the school logo to appeal to Mexican-Americans. But the efforts, plus donations and a diocese emergency loan, have not closed the gap.
"We're trying to be forward thinking but we've seen a lot of families lose their jobs," he said.
At Our Lady of Lourdes in East Los Angeles, which back in the 1940s schooled 1,000 pupils, Principal Cori Marasco's latest hook to reel in more pre K-8 students is turning an auditorium into an indoor basketball court, paid for by foundation donations. It's part of her plan to make the school a community center in the impoverished, gang-plagued neighborhood.
"The park is known for drive-by shootings so kids don't have a place to go," she said. "They can come here — and enroll in school, too."
Contact the reporter at http://twitter.com/ChristinaHoag .
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