This year proved to be the turnaround year for one of the oldest Catholic schools in the Los Angeles area. Only last year, Our Lady of Lourdes School administrators were pondering shuttering their doors as the number of students fell to merely 35. But after the arrival of a new, dynamic principal who focused on recruiting — by offering students incentives for convincing their friends to enroll — saw the school size more than triple to 132.
While nationwide enrollment in Catholic schools is continuing to decline, some areas of the country are seeing a resurgence. Last year 167 schools were forced to close due to lack of interest, and nationally, schools affiliated with dioceses around the country have lost nearly 34,000 students. Still, there were an increasing number of schools that have not only grown but also started to keep student waiting lists, and more than 30 new schools either opened their doors or are planning to do so this fall.
After seeing years of relentless enrollment decline, several key dioceses across the nation saw students trickle back to their schools over the past year. They say it comes down to a cultural change in Catholic education that has taken a while to implement but is finally taking root.
"If we want to continue to survive, we have to think like a business," said Domenico Pilato, who heads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' school marketing project.
It is the archdioceses in large urban centers like Los Angeles, New York and Boston that have taken to this approach to student recruitment most ardently. And they've seen their efforts pay off, as the local Catholic schools have seen a small bump in enrollment over the past several years. In the Los Angeles area in particular, 300 more students have enrolled in Catholic elementary schools last year, after seeing a yearly decline of 2,000 students over the past decade. Boston, on the other hand, has slowed its enrollment decline to 1%, while Chicago's enrollment actually grew for the first time in several years by an impressive 8%.
Smaller dioceses also report gains. In Lafayette, Ind., where two schools closed in 2009, 300 new kids enrolled and plans are afoot to open an elementary school. Bridgeport, Conn., reported a 5 percent enrollment jump.
"Catholic schools are beginning to market and promote themselves," said Shane Martin, dean of education at Loyola Marymount University. "It's really about getting the word out about this option. People don't know much about it."