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Preschool students McKinley Soukup, left, and Kayla Vail play together Sept. 22 at Mary Our Queen School in Omaha as they warm up for a half-day of classroom work. In background, student Leightyn Whitney is with teacher Sarah Smeltzer. The school is among those with new preschool and prekindergarten programs helping boost enrollment in Catholic schools.

Maria Mwita, a junior at Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue, works on an art project Sept. 19. Classmate Olivia Petranick is in background.

Transfer finds family-like atmosphere

Gross Catholic student, preschools among highlights of modest enrollment gains

Maria Mwita – a basketball player and artist who is active in speech and theater – was looking for something more than what she experienced at the public high school she was attending.

"I was looking for a family," Mwita said on a recent afternoon at Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue, where she found what she was seeking – and transferred this spring.

A close-knit kindness, respect and understanding is embedded in Gross Catholic’s culture, said Mwita, a junior and member of Life Spring Church in Bellevue. Values and beliefs held by Catholics and other Christians at the school create a special bond, she said.

Her mother, Jacinta, said her daughter began to experience that when she met girls from Gross Catholic through summer basketball and around their neighborhood.

"Maria seemed drawn to the girls from Gross and how they conducted themselves," she said. And as a mother, Jacinta said, she liked the school’s smaller setting, emphasis on service to the community and high academic achievement. The school also designs individualized tuition plans for each student, which the Mwitas appreciated, Jacinta said.

Strong academics, plenty of extracurricular activities and room for students to grow in faith all are part of Catholic education, which over the last three years has seen an upswing across the Archdiocese of Omaha that defies a decades-long national downward trend.

For example, Mwita is part of Gross Catholic’s net gain of eight students this year, bringing current enrollment to 400. And this year’s 19,849 students in 53 elementary and 17 high schools in the archdiocese are a net increase of 11 students compared with last year.

Statistically modest, the increase follows two years of larger gains, including a 1.4 percent increase last year and a nearly 2 percent gain in 2015-2016.

All of those numbers are moving in the right direction, said Michael Ashton, superintendent of schools. And as schools record net increases in the face of annual attrition such as graduation and families moving away, the number reflects still more students choosing Catholic schools’ high-quality academics and faith-based education, he said.

"That’s a lot of new encounters, and every encounter is an opportunity to evangelize," Ashton said.

Addressing more than 1,100 people at the 40th annual Archbishop’s Dinner for Education in La Vista, Ashton spoke of a "new normal" – continued enrollment growth that puts the archdiocese at the top of the list nationally for increases since 2014-2015.

Rural schools this year brought in more seventh- and ninth-graders, and the archdiocese expects to graduate 40 more seniors this year compared with last year, as 1,251 students advance to college or other opportunities, he said.

Another important factor is continuing to break down barriers to Catholic education with tuition grants and improved marketing. The archdiocese also has worked hard to reach Latino families – and today there are nearly 1,600 Latino students, 500 more than three years ago, Ashton said.

Additional drivers are growth in preschool and prekindergarten programs, and expanded services to students with special needs, Ashton said. To help with those initiatives, the archdiocese is emphasizing teacher scholarships in early childhood and special education, he said.

An example of growth this year in preschool (3- to 4-year-olds) and prekindergarten (4- to 5-year-olds) programs is the startup at Mary Our Queen School in Omaha, which brought 55 new students into the school, said Maureen Hoy, principal.

One recent morning found preschool teacher Sarah Smeltzer warming her students up with some playtime, and prekindergarten teacher Meghan Johns reading a story to her class. Assisting Johns was Anna Rosas, a teacher studying for an endorsement in early childhood education with help from the archdiocese’s scholarship program.

"It’s been a very easy process," Rosas said. "I’m excited."

Gross Catholic is benefiting from that kind of excitement among teachers and students, both at the high school and at the five elementary schools making up the Omaha-area Catholic school consortium – St. Bernadette in Bellevue and St. Thomas More, Ss. Peter and Paul, Holy Cross and Our Lady of Lourdes in Omaha.

Students boosting enrollment at those schools – including a net increase of 75 this year – often decide to attend Gross Catholic, said Dorothy Ostrowski, the high school’s principal and president.

Clearly benefiting from her education and involvement at Gross Catholic is Mwita, who says school there is more challenging than her previous experience.

"It will help me prepare for my next step, in college," Mwita said. Perhaps a career in social work is in the offing, she said.

"I want to work with people," she said. "I want to help others."

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