Catholic school enrollment drops

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Enrollment in Catholic schools has declined since 2000 in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and statewide. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Enrollment in Catholic schools has declined since 2000 in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and statewide.

Echoing a national trend, enrollment in Catholic schools has fallen 18 percent statewide during the past 13 years, figures show.

Enrollment has dropped 9 percent in the Diocese of Baton Rouge since 2000 and has fallen 25 percent in schools that make up the Archdiocese of New Orleans, in part because of population losses after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

The numbers were compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association, which is a voluntary association of educators and institutions in Arlington, Va.

The national drop in enrollment is 23 percent.

Theories for the drops vary, including rising costs of tuition, migration away from central cities where Catholic schools often thrived and smaller-sized families.

A total of 81,121 students attend schools in the state’s seven dioceses, down from 98,510 in 2000, according to NCEA figures.

Enrollment totals 15,201 students in the Diocese of Baton Rouge compared to 16,784 at the turn of the century.

Melanie Verges, superintendent of schools for the diocese, said a wide range of factors have contributed to the drop, which she noted is well under the national slide.

Verges said economic concerns, the growth of public magnet and charter schools, and geographic shifts account for some of the losses.

Jan Lancaster, superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said the number of her schools has dropped from 102 to 85 in the past 10 years or so.

Population drops after Hurricane Katrina are part of the reason, Lancaster said, which means fewer kids to fill the schools.

“We see that from the numbers,” she said.

Enrollment in the archdiocese is 38,280 compared with 51,247 in 2000, according to NCEA figures.

Officials of Xavier University Preparatory School announced on Wednesday that the 98-year-old school would close at the end of the academic year. Enrollment drops appear to be one of the reasons for the closure.

Xavier is not one of the archdiocesan schools.

Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and research for the NCEA, said the national decline stems in part from costs to attend the schools.

McDonald said that, over the past decade, elementary school tuition rose 69 percent nationally, and secondary schools’ tuition rose by 136 percent.

“Many factors account for that: increasing operating costs related to costs and benefits, reduced enrollment which causes further tuition increases to meet operating expenses,” McDonald wrote in an email response to questions.

Average elementary school tuition for students in the Diocese of Baton Rouge is $4,160, said Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Average high school tuition is $7,198.

McDonald, who said she could not discuss specific diocese enrollment drops, said other factors help explain the national trends. “Today, church attendance is down and parents may not see the value in faith-based education,” she wrote.

“Also, there is strong competition from charter schools in many areas that are free and attract parents who often consider them a “free” private school because they often resemble Catholic schools in many aspects,” McDonald said.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, touched on the subject in a recent column in The Wall Street Journal during Catholic Schools Week. “It is sometimes hard to understand why enrollment has dropped,” Dolan wrote.

“After all, even the enemies of Catholic education — and, sadly, there are some who wish our schools would disappear altogether — grudgingly admit that Catholic schools are unparalleled in providing a first-rate education that also emphasizes character and virtue,” Dolan wrote.

Not all schools have seen enrollment dips.

John Bennett, principal of St. Aloysius Catholic School, said his school has grown so much that it often requires four sections per grade, up from three previously.

Enrollment is 1,169 students for the school, which is in Southdowns.