I know I am quite late in the timing of this reflection but I wanted to have some time to gather and reflect on the enrollment statistics for our schools and centers for the Academic Year 2011-12. That data is now in and from it I want to share with you some of my thoughts. In addition, I have examined the test scores of the standardized test (ACRE) which checks the religious knowledge of fifth, eighth and eleventh graders in our schools.
Enrollment in our schools and early childhood centers remains somewhat static throughout the diocese. Our early childhood programs are down 77 students and the elementary total of all parish and private elementary schools is down 168 students for a total of 8,456 children. Our diocesan high schools enrollment is down eleven students for a total of 1,862 students but enrollment at the Academy of the Holy Names High School division and Jesuit High School is up by 40 students. The total number of students in all Catholic Schools and Centers in the diocese of St. Petersburg is 11, 877.
There has been a consistent drop in enrollment over the past five years in Catholic schools reflecting a variety of factors, the economy, demographic shifts (the St. Petersburg Times reports today that public school enrollment in Pinellas County is down 11% since 2003), charter and magnet schools, home-schooling, dissatisfaction by parents of some programs to name just a few which I hear more often than others. We have several schools which are seriously financially challenged and a few have some academic challenges which need to be addressed. Our buildings often need updating and remodeling to remain competitive but school budgets seldom have the funds to do what is necessary.
At my insistence, many in the diocese have been engaged in examining the reality of Catholic education in the diocese and some recommendations as to how best address these challenges are forthcoming. There will be neither a quick nor a cheap fix to the challenge. Deeply troubling to me is the emerging reality that there are two types of Catholic schools – the “haves” and the “have nots.” Generally but not always the “haves” are parishes with good schools and parents who can afford to pay the tuition. They are efficiently run and tuition collection is impressive. The “have nots” are schools serving a smaller population, a more financially challenged family economic reality, and lacking the administrative structure because of budget constraints.
It is no longer reasonable to assert that a Catholic education should be available to all who wish to access it regardless of means. I used to believe this as a foundational statement for maintaining Catholic schools. Some middle ground must be found where, if there are any schools, there need to be schools serving our whole community of believers.
I am pleased to say that the test scores which measure the cognitive effectiveness of religious education in our schools continue to improve. All of our schools are higher than the national average of all Catholic school students tested throughout the nation. As mentioned above, the fifth, eighth and eleventh grade scores reflect grade level comprehension of eight domains: God; Church; Liturgy and Sacraments; Revelation, Scripture and Faith; Life in Christ; Church History; Prayer and Religious Practice; and Faith Literacy. There are also four pillars of religious education measured and they are creed; liturgy and sacraments; morality and prayer. If we did not do what we profess we exist for, then there would be little need for Catholic schools. While I must reluctantly admit that not all parents are as interested in the religious education of their children as others, for most, and for myself, it is the raison d’etre of Catholic education.
Finally, some pastors require evidence that parents support what the schools are attempting in their religious education programs – namely that parents and children come to Sunday Mass and that there be evidence of the same. I support my pastors in this and am a deaf ear to appeals to the contrary.