More parents in city choose Catholic elementary schools for their children's education

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011

More parents are choosing Catholic elementary schools for their children, at least in the city of Chicago, and they are doing so because they want a strong, faith-filled education for their children.

“I think we’ve turned the corner,” said Dominican Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the archdiocesan schools superintendent. “What we are doing is critical not only to the church but to our society. Catholic schools are one of the best options for reengaging our children with faith, integrity service and achievement. It makes a difference in how they are going to grow up.”

The news of stable enrollment comes after years of declining enrollment and school closings — trends which slowed considerably in the last three years after a score of schools closed in 2005. This year, no Catholic schools closed and overall enrollment fell by about 500 students, a decrease of less than 1 percent. Last year, 62,806 students were enrolled in Catholic elementary schools. This year, the schools had 62,274 students.

Fifty-three percent of schools had stable or growing enrollments, and enrollment increased for schools in the city of Chicago and among Latino students.

A new attitude

McCaughey said part of the change is a new attitude, one that emphasizes the strengths of Catholic schools and what they can do for their students and families.

“Faith, morality, enduring values — what we have here is precious,” she said.

“We know there are plenty of families out there, who, if we’re able to engage them in what they are able to do, will want to be part of it,” said Ryan Blackburn, director of marketing and communications for the Office of Catholic Schools. “The mantra is more kids in more good Catholic schools.”

The schools are benefitting from the efforts of two new enrollment marketing consultants, who work directly with schools to set up enrollment teams and share best practices to reach out to the community of Catholic parents, Blackburn said.

“They need to tell their school’s story to prospective families and keep telling it to current families,” Blackburn said. “Schools and school communities are doing a better job of telling their stories, especially families who are satisfied with their experience. Families want to hear from other families what the school is like for their kids.”

Learning from each other

Ideas on just how to do that are shared at Archdiocesan Marketing and Enrollment Network (AMEN), which holds every-other-month meetings where school leaders can listen to experts and share their own thoughts and experiences.

Schools also have learned the value of finding a way to offer families who need it a small break on tuition, and to look at ways of maximizing the tuition collected by filling empty seats, she said.

The Big Shoulders Fund, a private not-for-profit that provides scholarships and capital funding for inner-city Catholic schools also has made enrollment more of a priority and has shared its ideas and practices with the Office of Catholic Schools.

Of course, challenges remain, including finding ways to make Catholic schools affordable for working and middle-class families. The archdiocese and the Big Shoulders Fund continue to look for more ways to link families with the resources they need to provide Catholic education, McCaughey said, but that effort cannot come at the expense of the quality of education.

“Resources follow quality,” said McCaughey. “And the research shows we are great. The facts are that if you graduate from a Catholic elementary school in this city, you have a 97 percent chance of graduating from high school. That tells you something. We’ve taught the kids to read, we’ve taught them to study, we’ve taught them they are important and loved by God. When a kid goes to Catholic high school, whether they are black, brown or green, the chance is 98 percent that they will go to college.”

While the schools are good, McCaughey said, they are not resting on their laurels. They are actively looking for ways to improve, while they also look for ways to attract more resources from individuals, the corporate world and the Catholic community itself, she said.

Pastors in particular should be promoting and supporting Catholic schools, she said.

“We know if a kid goes to a Catholic school, it doubles the chance that you’ll have a practicing Catholic as an adult,” she said.