School Choice & Charters

Catholic School Closures On Increase

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 21, 2003 5 min read
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The flurry of Roman Catholic schools set to close at the end of this school year fuels a two-year rise in the number of Catholic schools—most of them serving low-income urban families—shutting their doors.

Citing financial difficulties and falling enrollments, officials have announced numerous Catholic school closures this year, including schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. The news follows a year that marked the highest number of Catholic school closures in the past several years.

And while Catholic schools have seen steeper closure rates historically, some observers are alarmed by the current trend.

Janine Bempechat, who has studied Catholic schooling as a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Human Development, at Brown University, sees the trend as “a real shame.”

“A Catholic education is still very highly regarded,” she said. “With the poorest, most disadvantaged kids, [Catholic schools] do an exemplary job.”

Last year, 140 Catholic schools closed or consolidated, while 47 new ones opened, according to an upcoming report from the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Washington. Not only did last year bring the most school closings in the five years the group has produced the data, but it also had the largest gap between openings and closures or consolidations in that time period.

In 2001, 93 schools closed or merged, while 49 opened.

And while final numbers are not available for this school year, the news of closures in several cities suggest that the trend is not over.

The Archdiocese of Chicago, which shut down 16 schools last year, will close five elementary schools this year, and a Catholic high school run by a religious order there will shut down as well.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Buffalo are each closing five schools. The Boston Archdiocese is shutting down four schools, the Diocese of Cleveland is closing three, and the Diocese of Pittsburgh is closing two.

Michael J. Guerra, the president of the NCEA, said last week that the closings result from changing demographics and the faltering economy. “There are places where rising tuitions make it increasingly difficult for low-income families to keep their kids in Catholic schools,” he said.

Some of the schools, he noted, are located in communities—once settled by Catholic immigrants from such places as Italy, Germany, and Poland—that no longer have many school-age children to serve. “You have a school with 100 kids in it, and two blocks away, you have another school with 100 kids in it.”

Scandals’ Effect Unclear

In addition, Mr. Guerra said, the firestorm of publicity last year about incidents and allegations of priests’ sexual abuse of minors had raised challenges to the credibility of local church leadership “in a couple of places,” which may have reduced contributions and thus financial support for Catholic schools there.

But he said it was difficult to sort out the possible impact of the scandals with the fact that donors simply might have had less money to give recently than previously because of the sluggish economy.

While enrollment at Catholic elementary schools has dropped over the past two schools years, enrollment in Catholic secondary schools has increased slightly. Overall Catholic school enrollment dropped from 2.61 million in the last school year to 2.55 million this year—or a difference of 63,050 students—in 8,000 Catholic schools, according to the NCEA.

The recent school closings present a challenge for the Catholic Church in this country to figure out how to continue to make a Catholic education accessible to poor families, Mr. Guerra said.

Others echoed that concern.

“The church needs to decide if it’s committed to education, and if yes, there needs to be a strategy,” said Mary R. Ferrucci, the principal of Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School, an all-girls school in Boston, that will close in June for financial reasons.

“There needs to be a plan of how they will support it,” she said, “and how they are going to help those schools that don’t have much money.”

But significant national support from the church is not likely to materialize for struggling schools in the near future.

“Any time we close a school, it’s a matter of concern,” said the Rev. William F. Davis, the deputy secretary for schools for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

He said the bishops’ committee on education plans to meet next month to draw up a statement about elementary and secondary schools, which may address financial issues. The church doesn’t have any plans, however, to start financing Catholic schools on a national level, Father Davis said.

By necessity, some Catholic dioceses or archdioceses have figured out how to keep their city schools financially stable.

When the Diocese of Dallas threatened to close an urban school in 1990, some local businessmen established a fund that succeeded in keeping it open. Today, the fund contains $5 million and helps sustain the seven elementary schools and one high school located in the central city of Dallas.

Around the same time, the Pittsburgh Diocese reduced the cost of running its urban schools by consolidating many of them into larger, regional Catholic schools. The two schools that are closing this school year tried to make it on their own, but now must close since their enrollments have dropped below 50 students each, said the Rev. Kris Stubna, the secretary for education for the diocese.

“We consider Pittsburgh to have stabilized our [Catholic] school system,” he said.

In Memphis, private donors set up a fund four years ago that enabled the diocese there to reopen six urban schools that had closed.

Worse Closures Before

Still, the recent spurt of school closings is nothing like what Catholic education experienced in the 1970s and 1980s, said John J. Augenstein, the dean of the school of education at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wis., who has written about the history of Catholic schooling.

Enrollment in Catholic schools in the United States peaked in 1965 at 5.57 million, the same year that the Second Vatican Council, which ushered in dramatic changes in the practices of the Catholic Church, drew to a close. The nation then had 13,292 Catholic schools, according to the NCEA.

“It was a time when even the value of Catholic schools was being questioned,” Mr. Augenstein recalled. “We had religious women who were leaving the ministry of Catholic schools.”

He said it was hard for schools to move from staffs made up largely of nuns—who typically received $5,000 or $6,000 a year—to staffs composed increasingly of lay teachers, who requested at least $15,000 a year. Then in the 1980s, he said, many Catholic schools closed in the Midwest and the Northeast, as lots of people moved from those regions to the South and Southwest.

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