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Lauren Miller, director of admissions for Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, answers questions at the Catholic Schools Office’s Latino Parents High School Night Oct. 22 at College of Saint Mary in Omaha. COURTESY PHOTO

Enrollment in Archdiocesan Catholic schools dips slightly

Challenges include large graduating classes, Latino immigration concerns

Despite large graduating classes and concern among some Hispanic families over immigration politics, overall enrollment in the archdiocese’s 71 elementary and high schools dipped only slightly this year after three years of growth.

Enrollment of 19,818 students for the 2018-19 school year is only 43 fewer than last year’s 19,861, a change of less than 1 percent. In the 2017-18 school year, Catholic schools overall gained 23 students, and they enjoyed increases of 1.4 percent in 2016-17 and 2 percent in 2015-16.

Elementary schools in rural areas helped lead the way in enrollment this year, with growth registered in 19 of the 25 grade schools located outside the metropolitan area, said Michael Ashton, Catholic schools’ superintendent.

“We’re really amazed at our rural schools, especially rural elementary schools,” Ashton said. 

Advances in rural enrollments have occurred through strong messaging of Catholic school offerings, increased tuition assistance and regional programming such as agriculture-related classes, Ashton said.

Enrollment growth across the archdiocese also has been fueled by an increasing Latino population, a proliferation of pre-kindergarten programs, and the archdiocese’s multiyear Ignite the Faith capital campaign that included money for school, teacher and leadership development, technology advances, marketing and more, Ashton said.

[More: Latino families find a home in Catholic schools]

Much of that momentum continues. For example, Latino enrollment grew this year by 153 students in the archdiocese’s 54 elementary schools – from 1,403 to 1,556 – and eight students in its 17 high schools, climbing from 313 to 321 students.

The St. Stanislaus Dual Language Academy for preschool, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students that opened this year in Omaha is part of the Latino enrollment growth in elementary schools, attracting 80 students, Ashton said.

The academy also is part of the growth in preschool-through-kindergarten programs in the archdiocese, which over the last three years have increased by 254 students, from a total of 3,223 students to 3,477.  

All of those gains have helped Catholic school enrollment grow or remain steady despite annual attrition in schools for a variety of everyday reasons – from families moving out of town to simply switching schools to graduating.

This year, for example, high schools in the archdiocese had to bring in enough new students to make up for the largest graduating class of seniors in the last 20 years, with 1,250 seniors in the class of 2018 heading to college, jobs or other opportunities – 39 more than the 1,211 in the class of 2017. Elementary schools also faced large departing eighth-grade classes, with 1,416 students leaving overall in 2018, 45 more students than the 1,371 in 2017, Ashton said. 

[More: Local Catholic schools score higher than state, national averages on ACT

And while Latino enrollment continues to grow, still more would be willing to attend Catholic schools under a more favorable immigration climate, Ashton said. 

“In this political environment, they don’t know where they’ll be next year,” Ashton said. Among other things, they worry about deportations that could disrupt their immediate or extended families, he said. 

Beatriz Arellanes, coordinator of Latino enrollment in the Catholic Schools Office, said families also are worried about having the proper documentation, or even sharing information.

“That’s something we faced,” Arellanes said. “Many families would love to be in the Catholic school system. But they are worried.”

Inviting all students and families to a supportive, faith-filled, disciplined and strong academic environment is what drives Catholic schools and continues to attract families, Ashton said. 

For example, the three parishes in Columbus – each with its own grade school and all supporting a common high school – are reaching out to adults in faith formation efforts, highlighting Catholic spiritual and moral values and demonstrating the kind of life they could be offering their children through Catholic schools and other means, Ashton said.

Other initiatives in the archdiocese’s schools include finding ways to financially assist more low-income families. For example, 305 more students – for a total of 3,031 students – qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch this school year compared with last year, Ashton said.

The archdiocese also is expanding its efforts to assist children who have disabilities, to 1,594 this school year compared with 1,166 last school year. Although some of the growth in disability services could be attributed to reporting changes, schools are hiring more resource teachers, expanding partnerships with public school special educators and developing the capacity for all teachers to support such students, Ashton said.

As Ignite the Faith funding that began in 2015 is phased out, the Catholic Schools Office and other archdiocesan officials will continue to search for ways to help schools across the archdiocese’s 23 counties provide a Catholic education for more students, Ashton said.

“How much impact Ignite the Faith money had to enable schools to sustain themselves will be measured,” Ashton said. “That will inform what support and resources our schools still need.”

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