Schools in city see increase in enrollment

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 29, 2012

Catholic schools in the city of Chicago are celebrating the news that for two years in a row, enrollment has gone up. That’s the first time that has happened since 1965.

It might be too early to say Catholic schools have turned a corner, but Catholic schools superintendent Sister M. Paul Mc- Caughey is optimistic that efforts to promote the schools while keeping them on a sound financial footing will pay off.

“We think we can do it,” she said. “We think we can turn it around. It would be so much fun to see that across the system. Large Catholic school systems haven’t seen that since ’65. But we’re a good city to have this happen to.”

The efforts to spread the good news about Catholic schools, combined with changing demographics in the city, are leading to full classrooms, she said.

“We’re really growing in those places where young families are staying in the city, and they’ve grown to love it and they don’t want to leave,” Sister Paul said. “And with the focused scholarship efforts, we’re holding the line in the poorer areas.”

Across the entire archdiocese, enrollment is stabilizing, with a drop of less than 1 percent this year. But with 86,502 elementary school students this year, Catholic schools have fewer than half the students they did in 1979-80, when enrollment was 189,611.

Reviewing themselves

The Office for Catholic Schools has asked each of its schools to review where they are in terms of maintaining academic excellence and Catholic identity, financial status and their efforts to attract and keep new students. Each school also will be asked to come up with a plan to move forward in the next year, although many are already doing quite well.

“The schools that are doing it have a strong Catholic culture and excellent academics,” she said. “They are engaging parents and refocusing on getting the ‘good whispers’ out there.”

One school that has seen such efforts pay off is St. Therese Chinese Catholic School in Chinatown, which principal Phyllis Cavallone-Jurek said was on the brink of closure when she came 7 1/2 years ago. Then, the school opened with 180 students. Now, with ongoing efforts to strengthen an already rigorous curriculum and work spreading the word about the school across the city, it has waiting lists at all the lower grades.

There are 286 students, and Cavallone-Jurek has started to consider the possibility of adding space, although that would be difficult in its neighborhood.

The school will likely become even more popular in the next couple of years, as it proudly flies its national Blue Ribbon Award flag for all to see. It’s the first Blue Ribbon in 20 years for a school supported by the Big Shoulders Fund — a local nonprofit that offers scholarships and other financial help to schools where a significant percentage of the students are low-income.

At St. Therese, all students are expected to be two years ahead of grade level in math by the time they graduate, and all students study Mandarin Chinese and Spanish throughout elementary school. Because of the unique curriculum, Cavallone-Jurek said, she has to be careful when admitting transfer students to the upper grades.

Getting the word out

The school’s enrollment grew as Cavallone-Jurek worked with staff and parents to get the word out about the school’s strengths — its academics and its focus on Chinese culture. A student dance group performed whenever and wherever it could, including on morning TV news shows and at neighborhood festivals.

“Schools have to look at what their strengths are,” she said. “What are the non-negotiables that make us really special and unique?”

At St. Hyacinth School in Logan Square, enrollment jumped from 119 students last June to 187 students this year. Principal Annmarie Mahay said that what helped most in terms of marketing was really everything.

“No one thing works,” she said. “Everything we did brought in a few more kids.”

Perhaps the biggest single change the school made was opening a second preschool classroom, so that there are now 40 preschoolers instead of 25. Parents realize that full-day preschool costs less than daycare, and that their children get more out of it, Mahay said.

That follows the pattern for the archdiocese, where preschool enrollment is up 15 percent.

Families who have transferred older children into the school are generally coming from three area public schools, all of which are crowded, Mahay said, so they appreciate the small classes at St. Hyacinth. They also were able to get to know the school through a series of “family fun nights,” when they could mingle with existing St. Hyacinth families and teachers while doing activities in the school’s classrooms.

“It gives them the opportunity to take a look at us,” Mahay said.

The biggest obstacle to families choosing the school is nearly always the cost of Catholic education, Mahay said, although breaking it down into 10 monthly payments helps.

Sister Paul said Catholics should continue to push for more public funding of Catholic schools, whether in the form of vouchers or tax credits, because that would make it easier for families to choose Catholic education, which would be good for the state as well, she said.

“It saves the state money in the long run,” she said. “They just don’t see it.”