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1992-93 Enrollment In Catholic Schools Up Nearly 1 Percent

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NEW ORLEANS--For the first time in nearly 30 years, enrollment in Roman Catholic schools nationwide has increased significantly, thanks largely to the popularity of their pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs, according to data released last week by the National Catholic Educational Association.

The figures, announced by officials here at the N.C.E.A.'s annual convention, show that for the 1992-93 school year, enrollment in pre-K through grade 12 stands at 2,567,630--an increase of 16,767 students over last year.

That 0.7 percent jump is the largest single-year rise in enrollment nationally since 1964, Robert Kealey, the executive director of the N.C.E.A.'s elementary schools department, said at a press briefing.

The increase this year contrasts with small losses in the past five years of perhaps 10,000 students a year, Mr. Kealey said.

"What we have seen this year is a significant turnaround,'' Mr. Kealey said.

Association officials suggested a number of reasons for the increase, including stepped-up marketing efforts and demographic trends favoring elementary school programs.

Total enrollment in Catholic schools has remained relatively stable at around 2.6 million since the 1988-89 school year, following a steady decline from the three million mark in 1982-83, N.C.E.A. figures show.

Individual diocesan systems, however, have been plagued by financial worries in recent years, and church leaders have faced wrenching decisions on closing or merging schools.

Just last December, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, facing a deficit of $10.4 million for its secondary schools for the current school year, decided to merge or close five high schools next fall. That decision followed a furor over a consultant's report that had recommended a more drastic restructuring. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1993.)

14 Percent Jump for Pre-K

The growth this year in Catholic-school enrollment nationwide reflects gains in pre-kindergarten through grade 8. Overall enrollment in those grades has risen by 19,484 students--or nearly 1 percent--since last year, boosting enrollment at the pre-high-school level to 1,983,725 nationally.

In grades 9 to 12, enrollment declined to 583,905 students, 2,717 fewer than last year.

By grade level, the largest gains by far came in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs.

Pre-kindergarten programs, which Catholic schools have been adding in recent years, enrolled 122,788 students this year--a jump of 13.8 percent, or 14,849 students, from the 1991-92 school year.

By contrast, Catholic-school pre-kindergarten programs enrolled just 31,381 students nationwide in 1982-83, according to the N.C.E.A.

Kindergarten programs added 3,099 students--a 1.5 percent rise--this year, pushing enrollment to 210,729.

The elementary-level gains, combined with the losses in the high school grades, resulted in the overall net increase of nearly 17,000 students.

By region, enrollment increased in either the elementary or secondary level, or both, in 46 states and the District of Columbia, the N.C.E.A. figures show; only Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, and Wyoming did not experience such gains.

The gains this year came in spite of a drop in the total number of Catholic schools, N.C.E.A. officials pointed out. This year, elementary schools number 7,174, 65 fewer than a year ago, while secondary schools total 1,246, or 20 fewer than last year.

'Payoff' for Training

In addition to their satisfaction at the pre-K and kindergarten enrollment figures, association officials were "very, very pleased'' with data showing gains in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, Mr. Kealey said. He attributed the gains in those grades to recent efforts to provide the sort of "developmentally appropriate'' middle-grades experience recommended by education research, including attention to strong adviser-advisee relationships and to career exploration.

"What we are seeing now is that [staff] training beginning to pay off,'' Mr. Kealey said.

He also noted that the overall enrollment increase for Catholic schools, many of which charge tuition in the thousands of dollars, came despite the economic recession.

"I was scared stiff this past fall'' that enrollment would be off substantially, Mr. Kealey said in an interview. But, he said, "it was just the opposite.''

Mr. Kealey told the press briefing that some of the growth in enrollment could be attributed to changing demographics, which has meant Catholic schools can draw from a larger pool of elementary-school-age children than was available several years ago.

Effects of Marketing Seen

But N.C.E.A. officials also attributed some of the gains to a marketing campaign for Catholic schools launched by the association and the United States Catholic Conference in 1990.

"Catholic schools have learned the importance of telling the public about their academic excellence and values-added education,'' Sister Catherine T. McNamee, the N.C.E.A.'s president, said in a statement.

And Frank Savage, the executive director of the organization's chief-administrators department, said some of the enrollment success stems from the N.C.E.A.'s National Congress on Catholic Schools for the 21st Century, held in in 1991. That gathering sought to chart a course for Catholic schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)

"We think momentum that resulted from that event has helped us promote our schools,'' Mr. Savage said last week.

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