After Decades of Decline, US Catholic Schools Adapting to Survive and Grow


On Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, he scheduled a visit to just one Catholic school. Our Lady Queen of Angels in New York City was considered a good pick since it serves predominantly Spanish-speaking students, is in an East Harlem neighborhood, is committed to reaching out to the poor, and provides classes to adults in the community. But there is another reason the school stands out. It is also part of an effort to stop the decline of urban Catholic education that has taken place over the past half-century.

USA Today’s Greg Toppo writes that the Archdiocese of New York turned the operation of this school and five other Harlem and Bronx schools over to the Partnership for Inner-City Education two years ago. The partnership is a nonprofit management organization which created a small private school district and has become a model that archdioceses and parishes have been hoping will breathe life back into Catholic schools in cities across the nation. Kathleen Porter Magee serves as the superintendent of the partnership, who hires, fires, buys books and supplies, pays bills and attracts donors, among other tasks.

The National Catholic Educational Association reports that at the time of the Kennedy administration, US Catholic schools’ enrollment was at an all-time high. It was not expensive to run the schools because people who worked in them did not make much money, says Christian Dallavis, senior director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at Notre Dame. Plus there was a “massive subsidy from the religious workforce,” the thousands of nuns and priests who were partly paid by archdiocese or parish coffers.

But in the 1990s, Catholic school enrollment went down more than 50%. Families were heading to the suburbs, others could not afford tuition, and, eventually, charter schools began to open in many of the same neighborhoods and were a draw for Catholic parents who did not want to send their kids to public schools.

On Friday, the Pope did visit a third-grade classroom at Our Lady Queen of Angels, one of the symbols of the beleaguered Catholic education system. Between 2000 and 2013, over 2,000 Catholic schools closed or consolidated across the US. In New York, enrollment went from more than 130,000 in 2002 and 2003 to less than 90,000 in 2012 and 2013.

Ruth Graham writes for Slate that Our Lady Queen of Angels has tried some unusual efforts to buck the trend, including using charter schools as a model. Administrators and teachers agreed to use curriculum from Amplify, a “digital education product company” that is a subsidiary of News Corp, which tracks student progress, and the school’s finances are overseen by an operations manager.

Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson write in The Hechinger Report that this may be “the dawn of a renaissance of Catholic K-12 education.”  A report from Georgetown University in 2014 found that 53% of Catholic parents identified tuition costs as a problem. Half the parents who do ultimately enroll their children say the same thing. Many do not know that scholarship money is available.

There are other organizations, like Families Empowered in Houston, that help families on wait-lists for charter schools find quality school options such as Catholic schools.

In Memphis, between 1999 and 2004, the diocese reopened nine schools that had closed thanks to large financial gifts. These “Jubilee Schools,” hired a director of academic operations, charter school leader David Hill, who began to make changes such as extending the school day, strengthening school culture, and attracting and retaining exceptional teachers and principals.

Bishop J. Terry Steib turned the nine schools into the Jubilee Catholic Schools Network, with Hill as president, in 2014. This new management organization, along with creative teacher training and hiring, parish and diocese donations, corporate giving, and political action groups are making a difference for Catholic schools. School choice funding programs, vouchers, and tax credits, are also available for Catholic families in some states.