Local decline in Catholic school enrollment mirrors national trend

Students from Holy Family School sat quietly before their school Mass on a recent weekday morning, the sunlight slanting through the tall sanctuary windows, illuminating their blue shirts, khakis and plaid skirts.

When Mass began, students took an active role, reading Scriptures and prayers, raising their hands during the priest’s informal question-and-answer homily, and playing drums and shakers to upbeat hymns.

With about 165 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, the 89-year-old parish school on Poplar Level Road has kept operating — even as numerous smaller, historic parish schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville have closed or merged.

“We’re pretty solid this year,” with a mix of steady tuition, new students and donors helping balance the budget, principal Beverly McAuliffe said.

But as she gave visitors a tour of the building — passing photos of larger graduating classes in generations past — McAuliffe spoke of needs ranging from window replacements to financial aid.

“It’s just a constant challenge to try to make it work,” she acknowledged.

Figuring out what works is a challenge the entire archdiocese is confronting amid dramatic shifts in its school landscape — which traces its roots back two centuries to pioneer schoolhouses around Bards­town and educated generations of immigrants in close-knit urban parishes.

In the past decade, enrollment has fallen 25 percent to 12,469 in the archdiocese’s elementary (K-8) schools, which are mostly in and around Louisville and Bards­town.

Twenty of the 55 traditional elementary schools the archdiocese operated in 2000 have since closed or merged. Catholic schools no longer operate in Bullitt County or some older city neighborhoods, such as in western Louisville.

The archdiocese recently published a report on elementary enrollment trends, including an extensive survey of Catholic parents that found, among other things, that cost is a significant factor, as are weaker ties to their faith.

Archdiocesan leaders are now coordinating more formal discussions among parishioners and school boards, focused on how to turn the tide and ensure a future for its elementary schools.

Among the topics: whether to more aggressively switch from a mostly parish-based system to other formats — for example, a centralized school district or more regional academies such as those formed by several recent school mergers.

These kind of discussions are not limited to Louisville, said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

The enrollment declines here mirror a national trend — Catholic elementary enrollment in the United States is down by a quarter in the past decade, and archdioceses in older cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have shuttered scores of neighborhood schools founded generations ago to serve immigrants whose offspring have moved on.

“We would be wrong to think trends around the country are not going to affect us, too, so the question is, how do we make our schools accessible to the broadest number of people?” Reynolds said.

Growth in some areas

Some areas are bucking the declining-enrollment trend, including the fast-growing regions of the Louisville archdiocese, such as the eastern Jefferson County suburbs and Elizabethtown, where hundreds of students pack spacious new Catholic schools.

The nearby Archdiocese of Indianapolis has seen K-12 enrollment increase almost 1,600 to 23,547 in the past two years, said spokesman Greg Otolski.

While St. Mary’s Church in New Albany recently announced it would close its school because of finances, Indiana’s 2011 voucher law, allowing parents to get state subsidies for private-school tuition, is “making Catholic schools more affordable for people,” Otolski said.

Some Archdiocese of Louisville schools are doing well.

St. Michael School in Jeffersontown, which launched in 1997 with a kindergarten and first grade, is now offering three classes per grade through fourth grade and two per grade through eighth. The parish, just off the Gene Snyder Freeway, has soared in membership amid new subdivisions and shopping outlets.

“Being small is wonderful,” principal Sheila Marstiller said, recalling the early days. “Now we just have to do the same thing but on a larger scale.”

Shrinking flock

The national decline in Catholic school enrollment mirrors a decline in child baptisms and reflects another of American Catholicism’s current struggles — retaining new parents and other young adults. Catholic marriages and burials also are down.

Among local Catholic parents recently polled for the archdiocese who don’t send children to diocesan schools, more than a fifth said they weren’t committed enough to the faith to want their children educated in it.

That, church officials say, shows they need to be looking beyond school structures and budgets — to what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “new evangelization,” creatively presenting the faith to alienated cradle Catholics.

While some people are rejecting teachings or other aspects of the church, “in most cases it seems to be adrift,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said.

“It’s not because they oppose the practice of the faith,” he said, but they often get busy or focused on day-to-day concerns. “They’ve literally fallen out of the habit.”

Kurtz said many are spiritually searching, and schools can help evangelize both children and their parents.

The archdiocese already is renewing efforts to incorporate the church’s catechism — or summary of core teachings — in schools, he added. “Part of our mission is to teach,” he said.

Building on strength

Proponents say Catholic schools have many strengths — strong academic reputations, with good test scores and disciplined atmospheres where Catholic teachings and service projects are woven in.

The Louisville archdiocese, according to its archdiocese report, is tied for the third-highest percentage of Catholic schoolchildren per Catholic of any diocese in the nation — behind only Covington, Ky., and Jefferson City, Mo.

“The teachers are credentialed, but they also bring that dedication and commitment to overall ministry,” added Leisa Schulz, superintendent of the archdiocese’s schools.

The biggest challenge remains financial. About half of those Catholic parents surveyed who aren’t sending children to Catholic schools said they couldn’t afford it, and another fifth weren’t sure it was worth it.

“I think our school would be packed if we didn’t charge tuition, just because of the community,” McAuliffe said.

The average tuition in the archdiocese is $4,973 but varies by school, number of students per family and other criteria. Tuition starts at about $6,300 at Holy Family and $5,200 at St. Michael.

In past generations, Catholic schools were largely staffed by nuns and friars who were compensated in keeping with their vows of poverty.

Today, 97 percent of educators in American Catholic schools are lay people. Personnel costs, while below public-school levels, have risen.

Still, parents who send their children to Catholic schools say it’s worth the sacrifices.

“We don’t drive new cars. We have a ’93 and a ’98 automobile,” said Shelly Junuzovic, the mother of a first-grader and a preschooler at Holy Family. “For us, education is our kids’ top priority.”

She and her husband, who both work full time, also receive some scholarship help from the Catholic Education Foundation, which provides more than $2 million annually in scholarships and other aid to Catholic schools and parishes.

“We’re very blessed that there is help,” she said.

Lara Norrenbrock of Fisherville, a mother of three children who are or will be attending St. Michael, said she and her husband grew up in Catholic schools and valued their weaving of education, faith and manners.

“Both my husband and I still are, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ and we feel that’s important,” she said. “We want our children to grow up like that.”