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Catholic Educators Step Up Search for More Students, Dollars

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NEW ORLEANS--The need to attract more students and dollars in the face of a declining school-age population and increased competition from public and private schools was the dominant theme here last week at the annual meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Enrollment in Roman Catholic schools has plunged by 40 percent from its peak in 1964, even as enrollment has been growing in other nonpublic schools. While the situation is "urgent,'' school officials acknowledged, the Catholic school system is not on the brink of collapse.

"It's not the best of times, but it's not a 'crisis in Catholic education,''' said the Rev. Robert J. Yeager, vice president of development for the N.C.E.A. "For the past 20 years, we were always going to go out of business tomorrow.''

Even so, Catholic educators say they are becoming more interested in "development,'' the "buzz word'' among colleges and private schools for a combination of better student recruitment, fund raising, promotion, and management.

Indicative of this change is the association's new Institute for Catholic Management and Development, whose establishment was announced at the meeting. The institute, to be affiliated with St. Mary's College Graduate Center in Minneapolis, will serve as a clearinghouse for information on Catholic-school management, Father Yeager said. He will become director of the institute when it opens in July.

The affiliation with St. Mary's will enable the association to increase its development services from a one-man office, run by Father Yeager for the past five years, to an operation drawing on a range of experts in the college's graduate school of business, as well as the college's grant-writing and research staff.

Demand Exceeds Expectations

Talking about development to Catholic-school officials "is like introducing the clergy in the Middle Ages to hunting,'' Father Yeager said. "Now, the blood is running.''

When the Catholic educators' group began its development office in 1982 and started giving workshops for school officials, "we thought we'd be lucky to get 75 people interested,'' Father Yeager said.

Last year, however, the development workshops drew 5,000 participants, officials estimate. And at the convention this year, the association's development section ran 66 workshops on topics that included public relations, face-to-face solicitation, cash management, and the pros and cons of consolidation.

The participants in such programs are searching for the knowledge and tools to help them cope with long-term downward trends they say are threatening the future of Catholic schools.

In 1965, Catholic schools accounted for 87 percent of the enrollment in nonpublic precollegiate education. By 1986, however, Catholic-school enrollment had decreased to 63 percent of all nonpublic enrollment, according to a report the N.C.E.A. released this month. (See Education Week, April 22, 1987.)

The proportion of non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools has jumped from 2.7 percent in 1969 to 11.7 percent today. The majority of the non-Catholic students are black.

"It used to be that if you were Catholic, you went to Catholic schools,'' Father Yeager said. "That's not the case anymore, and it has serious implications for the schools.''

It means having to aggressively "sell'' Catholic education to a wider audience, in direct competition with other private schools, Father Yeager said.

The schools' financial problems are compounded by the long-term decline in the number of teaching nuns and brothers, who are paid very little. Recruiting lay teachers to replace them has forced the schools to raise salaries.

Other problems, such as aging buildings, the cost of asbestos removal, population shifts, and reduced subsidies from parishes and dioceses are causing schools either to close or consolidate, said Sister Mary Montgomery, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Madison, Wis.

"Unless we take a long-range systemic look at what's happening to our schools, we may not have them in the future,'' she said.

Slow To Act

While most school officials now seem to be aware of the implications of such trends, they have been slow to respond to them, Catholic educators said.

Sister Barbara Dannhausen, coordinator of Christian-formation planning of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, cited the experience of one diocese's attempt to consolidate schools in three parishes. The effort began in 1970, with many studies and attempts to design models, she said.

But parishioners were afraid to move ahead, she said, and hired a consultant to provide further advice. The three parishes struggled to agree on a plan, and it was not until last year that one of the schools finally closed.

"We go about this as if we have the whole next millennium to solve our problems,'' Father Yeager agreed.

Citing the need for action, Father Yeager said one of the first projects of the new Catholic development institute will be to try to set up model development programs in 25 Catholic elementary schools around the country.

The project will begin this fall in five dioceses: Austin, Tex.; Portland, Me.; Raleigh, N.C.; St. Paul-Minneapolis; and Syracuse, N.Y.

"You can learn everything you need to know about development in three hours,'' he said. "Now we just have to get these schools to do it.''

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