It wasn't that long ago that parochial education in the United States seemed like it was on its last breath. Parishes were closing and merging schools left and right, with bishops complaining that families were just not as interested in enrolling their kids in Catholic schools anymore as fiscal realities took a toll on both families and schools.
It used to be that the public school was the parochial school's chief competitor. But now in order to stay relevant, Catholic schools must look to competition from charter schools – publicly funding but independently operated schools – to avoid losing more ground.
St. Paul School in South Seattle showed that it realized which way the wind was blowing when it announced that starting next fall it will offer an online education component to all its students during the course of the school day. St. Paul is the second to make the switch, but it is unlikely to be the last.
According to Linda Shaw of The Seattle Times, a number of Catholic schools around the state are mulling a similar change. While the stated reason is that they're upgrading their curriculum to get with the times, the real reason could be that they don't want to be left behind when charter schools finally arrive in Washington State in the next year or two.
Another challenge is the lack of facilities. "80% of our schools are under trees and it rains nine months of the year," said Pia. This poses problems for protecting textbooks, provided for primary schools by Britain's Department for International Development (DfID) for the first time this year.
Part of DfID's aid programme is to support 2 million children in primary education by providing textbooks, building classrooms and offering education to children who drop out or start school late. Support for education is one thing, changing attitudes towards girls' education another.
The goal is to prove to students and their parents that Catholic schools can be just as innovative when it comes to education as charter schools.
What parochial schools have, however, that charters won't – at least initially – is a proven track record. After all, Catholic schools have been educating students in Seattle and other parts of Washington before it even was a state.
The archdiocese has reason to worry about its schools' future. Nationally, enrollment in Catholic schools has declined significantly over the past decade. That's attributed in part to the rise of charter schools, which are public schools that are privately run and operate independently of their local school districts.
Some researchers say that Catholic schools in low-income, urban neighborhoods have lost the most ground to charters because the charters that have opened around them often have a similar focus on character as well as academics.