Enrollment figures at Catholic elementary schools are dropping dramatically and diocesan officials are now trying to figure out why this is happening, and how they can stop the trend.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, enrollment has dropped by about 5 percent, from over 37,000 students to less than 36,000 in the past year.
The diocese has shuttered 46 schools over the past five years, including two in Queens that closed in June: St. Gerard Majella School, founded in 1923, and Our Lady of the Cenacle, opened in 1950. The enrollment at both schools dropped well below 225, the benchmark that puts an elementary school at risk of closing.
The situation is no different in neighboring boroughs. Roughly 6,000 fewer students enrolled in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York, comprised of Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx and northern suburbs. More than 1,200 Catholic schools have closed nationwide since 2000, according to a study by the National Catholic Education Association.
The economic downturn is clearly a factor in the situation and could make matters worse. Auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano addressed school officials earlier this month on the crisis, citing “unparalleled upheaval” in the economy and the ever-increasing costs of living in the city as contributing factors to the reduction in enrollment.
While charter schools have also been cited as a factor, it is likely less the case in Queens, which only has seven such schools.
The first action taken by the diocese has been to increase the amount of money it gives out for scholarships. This year, the diocese gave out an additional 1,900 scholarships, each for $1,400. That’s in addition to the 5,000 scholarships it already distributes, for a total of $10 million.
“We are working very rigorously to ensure every parent who would like to send their child to Catholic school can do so, regardless of geography or their economic situation,” said Father Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the diocese.
The diocese is also in the process of a four-stage plan to strengthen the school system. Caggiano outlined the four stages of the plan to staff earlier this month. Currently, the diocese is collecting and reviewing budget and census data. In January, it will release a “road map” for moving forward. Whether this road map will include shutting schools is not yet known, but is a possibility.
The schools will then be aligned with parishes, so each school has support, and finally the diocese will introduce a new governance model, closer to that of Catholic high schools, that uses boards of directors to assist in financial oversight.
“Right now we have 15 percent of seats unfilled at Catholic schools,” Harrington said. “That’s why we’re being aggressive.”