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.
While local schools have had to adjust to shrinking numbers, those who work for them are positive about their future.
"I'm going to say positively we will still be here," said Kathleen Lemmert, secretary of Christ Lutheran School in Murray, who has been with the school for 18 years.
Future remains bright
Education is one of the missions of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which means all parishes donate a portion of their revenues toward education, even parishes without Catholic schools nearby.
Even with some money from the diocese, all Catholic schools are responsible for the bulk of their costs. Utah's Catholic schools are primarily funded through tuition and fundraising.
Some of Utah's Catholic schools are struggling to remain fully occupied, she said, especially those that only serve one parish. This wasn't the case 25 years ago when most of the schools were filled to capacity with people on waiting lists.
The schools are selective in who can be admitted and tend to have an academic focus; in recent years, local schools have begun admitting those with low to moderate learning disabilities, Sister Kamphaus said.
On average, 25 percent of Utah's Catholic school students adhere to other faiths like Judaism, Buddhism, and Mormonism. Parent surveys for schools in the state show that most are drawn to the school first by the academics, second by the safe environment and third by the faith-based atmosphere, Sister Kamphaus said.
For Cindy Lowder, who enrolled her three sons in St. Joseph Catholic Schools in Ogden, the appeal lies in the school's cohesion.
“It’s more than a community. It’s more like a family,” she said.
Lowder, also a graduate of St. Joseph's, said she appreciates how the teachers take one-on-one time to teach and tutor the students.
"Those teachers want to be there," she said. "It's a huge sacrifice, and I think it's something that everyone has to choose."
Although Catholic school teachers receive a "thinner wage" than some of their teaching peers, they have been able to help students achieve educational excellence, Russell said.
School choice gives families many options, and that often means transfers from one school to another.
“It was a nice experience. It just didn’t meet our expectations academically," said Jon Fletcher, who at one point had all of his children attending St. John the Baptist or itssister school Juan Diego High School in Utah, but made a change.
He said his family moved from Boston five years ago and, after spending time at another private school in Utah, their children were enrolled in Catholic schools. Although he was able to afford the cost of the school, he said he didn't think they were getting the value out of the money they spent on tuition. He said he was also disappointed that the local parish and school did not have a closer relationship.
He moved all of his children to Draper Park Middle, a local public school, with the exception of his oldest daughter who is at the University of Utah as part of an early enrollment program and taking a final theology class during her senior year at Juan Diego.
Aquilla said she is happy with the academics at St. John the Baptist and notes there are two teachers per class for most of the day, a full-day kindergarten and assignments that continue through the summer.
"Are there better private schools out there? I'm sure there is," she said, but she is happy with how the school promotes faith and involves families.
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