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This WSJ article by Staphanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz detail some of the promising signs for Catholic schools nationally, Vouchers Breathe New Life Into Shrinking Catholic Schools.  Though much of the largest gains are in states with voucher and tax-credit programs, especially promising is the enrollment growth in large cities like Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles – all in states which lack publicly funded scholarship programs.  It is notable that all three cities have a large commitment to privately funded scholarships and have been proactive in welcoming Latino families to Catholic schools, two factors that may explain some of their recent growth.

One has to wonder if the combination of expanding voucher and tax credit programs and efforts to innovate and adapt to changing markets have started to yield a systemic turnaround.  Though too early to suggest that the 50 year storm of enrollment decline and closure is abating, these are very promising signs that fairer weather may be on the horizon.

For the first time in decades, Catholic education is showing signs of life. Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders, Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment.

Chicago Catholic elementary schools saw enrollment increase 3% this year and 1% last year—the first two-year growth spurt since 1965. Greater Boston elementary schools had a 2% bump—the first in 20 years. And Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Bridgeport, Conn., also added desks for the first time in years.

Nationally since 2000, U.S. Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 23%, and 1,900 schools have closed, driven by demographic changes and fallout from priest sexual-abuse scandals. Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia have announced plans to close even more Catholic schools.

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But lately, Catholic schools have slowed their overall rate of decline. This year, two million children attended Catholic schools, down 1.7% from last, but less than the average yearly decline of 2.5% over the past decade.

The improving prospects for Catholic schools in some cities come at a time of great ferment in U.S. education. Years of overhauls in public schools have yielded only modest progress. And attendance at independent private schools fell during the recession.

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The largest Catholic school system in the U.S., the Archdiocese of Chicago, can now boast enrollment growth in the city’s Catholic schools for the first time since the 1960’s.  In the midst of the worst and most stubborn recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, this news is simply incredible, almost miraculous!

Half of Chicago’s Catholic schools (53%) are stable or growing this year, compared with 35% the last several years.  Also particularly promising given Chicago’s booming Latino population and the critical segment of the Catholic market that Latinos represent for Catholic schools (see here for more), the Latino student population grew for the first time in Chicago in at least five years.

While other large Archdioceses are dealing with consolidation and school closure in an effort to find solid ground to begin building a more stable Catholic school system, Chicago is growing!!  How is this possible?  What is the magic in Chicago?

There’s no magic here, only a lot of hard work, strong leadership, and good ideas being effectively implemented.

First let’s mention leadership.  In July of 2008 Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, O.P. took the helm as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese.  She has brought energy and dynamism to the lead spot in the Catholic schools office.  In Spring of 2009 the Archdiocese founded a new powerhouse of a Board of Catholic Schools, which has sought to exercise leadership in governance and policy for the Archdiocese.  Though it may be too early to be seeing the impact of this board’s involvement, this is a promising sign for the future of Catholic schools in Chicago.  Finally and perhaps most importantly has been the ongoing vital contributions and innovations of the Big Shoulders Fund.  Between their 10 to 12 million dollars of annual scholarship contributions and other funding support to stabilize and increase enrollment, to their experiments in adding regional marketing and recruiting staff, Big Shoulders has been integral to the health of the system for many years.

The marketing, enrollment and scholarship push has been at the center of effective policies of the Archdiocese, and can be largely credited with the recent growth.  There is an Archdiocesan Marketing Enrollment Network (AMEN) that promotes and shares best practices, an increased investment in Enrollment Marketing Staff at the Archdiocesan and local levels, and broader efforts to strengthen the Catholic school brand.

Also noteworthy are 16 Catholic elementary schools that are part of an innovative experiment called Archdiocesan Initiative Model elementary schools.  This 3-year pilot transferred governance authority among a set of at-risk schools from the Parish to the Catholic Schools Office.  The Catholic Schools Office sought to invest in programs and policies that would translate to enrollment growth and financial health.  Though the program only began on July 1, 2010, the schools have already seen a net enrollment increase, many of them reversing multi-year trends of enrollment decline.   The Archdiocese is also committed to ensuring the vitality of St. Gregory High School’s, which is also participating in the Board Initiative.

Finally, the Archdiocese has continued to invest in an effort to boost Latino enrollment in Catholic schools that began last year.  Working together with the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic School Advantage Campaign, and receiving considerable support from the Archdiocese Enrollment Marketing Consultants, Latino enrollment grew for the first time in at least five years by 200 students, an increase of 1.7% of total Latino enrollment.  The Archdioceses remains committed to an audacious goal of doubling Latino enrollment in Chicago’s Catholic schools by 2020, which will require ramping up to a growth rate of 7% annually.  Efforts like this story on Univision Chicago will hopefully continue to build the momentum. 

All and all, these modest gains are a small miracle and an important sign of what is possible in American Catholic schools.  May it be the beginning of a changing trend and a model for policies and practices that can work in other places.

A special thanks to Ryan Blackburn of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools for sharing the good news!

A recent blog post in a blog called Law, Religion and Ethics highlights the forthcoming article by Notre Dame law professors Nicole Garnett and Margaret Brinig titled Catholic Schools and Broken Windows (referring to the well known broken window theory about crime and urban deterioration), about their study of the impact of Catholic school closures on inner-city Chicago neighborhoods.  The blog post mentions the major findings of the Garnett and Brinig study:

The authors present extensive evidence that neighborhoods that lose their Catholic schools descend into greater disorder and eventually experience increased crime. Obviously there are issues of correlation versus causation, which the authors acknowledge and attempt to address.

Though I have not yet had the pleasure of reading their article, I have heard Professors Garnett and Brinig share a presentation on this study.  I can assure you that this article will be a valuable contribution to making the empirical case for the contribution of Catholic schools and the need to preserve and support them.  The study demonstrates empirically what Tony Bryk and others have argued before and many more have known through experience: Catholic schools in the U.S., especially urban Catholic schools, through their service to children, families and entire communities, are uniquely valuable institutions for preserving and protecting the common good.  We look forward to reading this important study!

Just added: here is a link to the law review article discussed above, Catholic Schools and Broken Windows.

Senator James Meeks (D-Chicago) succeeded in getting his bill passed in the State Senate to pilot vouchers in Chicago for students in failing public schools.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, this would not only be an important step towards educational justice for tens of thousands of children consigned to failing Chicago schools, but it would also make the largest Archdiocesan Catholic school system more accessible to needy families.

The bill passed with a vote of 33-20, pretty incredible in a Democratically controlled Senate.  But major challenges lie ahead as the vote moves to the House and has received a chilly response from Democratic Governor, Pat Quinn.

“This voucher legislation targets those most in need, and we know our Catholic schools can help,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which supported Meeks’ legislation.

This contention, that Catholic schools can help, is certainly supported by the data, which suggests that low-income minority students that attend a Catholic school are 42% more likely to graduate from high school and two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from college than their public school peers.

We’ll be watching this one closely!

A great lead editorial in the Chicago Tribune last Tuesday makes a compelling case for supporting Senator Meeks’ bill to grant vouchers to students in failing Chicago public schools.

This picks up on the story I began covering a few weeks ago, emphasizing what a blessing this would be for Chicago’s Catholic schools, as well as tens of thousands of low-income children that would benefit from a quality education.