Facing steady declines in enrollment, three New Orleans-area Catholic schools will close at the end of the current school year, a move that will send 507 children, their parents and about 50 faculty and administrators in Orleans, Jefferson and St. John the Baptist parishes looking for new elementary schools in 2015.
Pastors with Holy Ghost School in Uptown New Orleans, St. Agnes School in Old Jefferson and Our Lady of Grace in Reserve made the decision to close after meeting with Archdiocese of New Orleans officials. They told parents and students at meetings Wednesday night.
“There were some tears in the crowd,” said Michael Buras, principal of St. Agnes School on Jefferson Highway, where enrollment has dropped to 161 students this year.
This school year was Buras’ first, and the 35-year-old former assistant principal at De La Salle High School said veteran teachers had more of a sense that it might be coming. The newer ones, “you could tell were a little more shocked about it,” he said.
As for himself, “I knew there was going to be some work to be done, but I didn’t expect it to close within the year.”
Catholic school enrollment has been on the decline across the country, thanks to smaller families and increased competition from charter and magnet public schools that has families reconsidering the cost of sending children to Catholic schools. From 2003 to 2013, enrollment fell by about 23 percent nationally.
In New Orleans, the demographic shifts that took place after Hurricane Katrina have taken their toll, as well; the number of students enrolled fell 28 percent, from about 52,500 in 2000 to 38,000 in 2013.
The archdiocese said the area’s 60 Catholic schools have lost about 500 students per year since the storm.
“It’s a sad day,” Superintendent Jan Lancaster said. “It’s a very hard situation, but because we are letting people know in advance, it gives us an opportunity to help people through this hard time.”
The archdiocese brought in consultants from American Catholic University in Washington, D.C., about two years ago to draft a strategic plan. Much of it — including a push to increase private giving toward a subsidy pool and shifting the eighth grade into high school — has yet to be fully implemented. But the archdiocese has begun meeting with pastors whose parish schools’ enrollment has fallen below 200 to discuss their sustainability.
Some may decide their parishes have the resources to supplement the schools, while others may not, Lancaster said.
“Once a school gets to a certain enrollment, it’s just difficult to maintain the strong academics that our schools are known to have, paying the teachers the salaries that need to be paid and maintaining the facility,” she said.
In Reserve, it was simply time to make the call, Our Lady of Grace Pastor Christopher Amadi said. “When you put the numbers down, it’s obvious,” he said, noting that enrollment has fallen to 171 students.
“With the number way below 200, it does affect (the school’s) financial sustainability,” Amadi said. “It’s been a longtime situation. The decline in numbers has been going on for a while.”
Our Lady of Grace has only two classes graduating this year, and Amadi said the school’s enrollment would be only about 120 were it not bolstered by the state’s voucher program for low-income families. “It’s kept it alive for the last two years,” he said.
In uptown New Orleans, tucked behind St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church on Louisiana Avenue, Holy Ghost Catholic School just celebrated its 98th birthday last week with a Mass, a second-line parade, cake and games in the schoolyard.
“It was a typical New Orleans birthday party,” Principal Camille Treaudo said.
Sitting in her office after school Thursday, she was resigned to the bad news.
“I’ve been telling parents that this school year is going to be the end of a long history,” she said, adding the staff and its 166 students will work to make the 98th year Holy Ghost’s best.
“I can’t tell you that any of us are happy or excited about the decision,” she said. “We just have to agree to disagree. We have to do what’s best for our kids.”
Kennikqua Phillips, who has two children enrolled in first and fifth grade, said she is upset that her children will have to find new schools, make new friends and work with new teachers. Uniforms, she said, will likely cost money she doesn’t have.
“We’re like a family here,” she said. “I don’t want to transfer.”