Utah Catholic schools buck national trends, keep thriving

Published: Sunday, July 13 2014 5:10 p.m. MDT

Cate Stevens, a third-grader at St. John The Baptist Catholic Elementary School in Draper, speaks during Mass in November of 2013.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Christa Aquilla wanted her kids to go to a school that taught religious values and had a sense of community.

She and her husband moved to Utah from New York before they had children and were welcomed by the St. John the Baptist Catholic parish in Draper. When her oldest child reached kindergarten age, St. John the Baptist Elementary fit Aquilla's wants.

"I love it. I love the school itself. I think the school is top-notch," she said.

While Catholic schools in the East and Midwest are consolidating and shutting down from dropping enrollments, those in Utah and other parts of the West and South are bucking that trend and remain stable.

There are 5,500 students attending 18 Catholic schools in Utah, a number that has remained stable for about eight years, according to Sister Catherine Kamphaus, superintendent of Utah's Catholic schools.

Although admissions have taken a hit from the surge of charter schools in the state, five Catholic schools have opened in Utah since 1999 and none have closed, Sister Kamphaus said.

"We hope we never have to close one," she said.

Nationally, there has been a steady drop. In the 1960s more than 5.2 million U.S. students attended almost 13,000 Catholic schools, according to the National Catholic Education Association's 2013-14 annual statistical report on Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

By the most recent school year the number dropped to just less than 1.8 million students attending 6,594 schools. Although 42 schools opened in the 2013-14 school year, 133 closed or were consolidated.

Why schools close

Reasons for the closures range from migrations of families out of typically Catholic areas of the country to rising tuition costs and competition from other specialty schools.

Supporters of Catholic school education point to the approximately 99 percent high school graduation rate and in Utah a college placement rate that is in the 98th percentile.

"There’s something very special about the Catholic school. It’s the community that exists around it. It’s the expectations of excellence that permeate our Catholic school system," said Matthew Russell, National Catholic Education Association director of advancement.

Funding is a primary reason for many of the school closures, Russell said. Many schools have historically depended on a single parish for their funding, something that has not been easy to maintain as Catholics move away from areas formerly clustered with those of their faith.

About 20 to 30 years ago, Catholic schools started hiring instructors rather than having nuns teach, which increased the cost the schools had to shoulder, Russell said. Schools that have been using a tuition-based model for a long time have been more resilient, he said.

Other explanations for the overall decline in admission numbers are the economic downturn that is straining family budgets, and the rise of quality charter schools.

Lutheran schools nationwide are experiencing a similar squeeze, according to Gale Denny, executive director of the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association. The Lutheran denomination over her school, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is one of three major denominations that have schools in the United States, she said. In addition to the emergence of charter schools and rising tuition costs, Denny said people do not feel as tied to a religious affiliation as they did in the past.

"I think that people are looking for the quality of the school as opposed to the denominational affiliation," she said.

Despite this trend, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America schools have seen a resurgence in national admissions over the past two years, she said.

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