The opening of a new school for special-needs students in the New Orleans area — amid the closure of two others — is in line with broader plans to provide more educational options for Catholic families and stave off more enrollment declines, officials with the Archdiocese of New Orleans said Friday.

Catholic Schools Superintendent Dr. RaeNell Houston said in an interview that the new St. Thérèse Academy for Exceptional Learners will build on the successes of the two schools it will replace next year: Our Lady of Divine Providence in Metairie and Holy Rosary Academy & High School in New Orleans.

It was one of the first interviews Houston has given on the subject since she announced the school changes last week. 

"We have heard for a number of years that there are children and families with exceptional learning needs that have not been fulfilled by Catholic schools," Houston said. "We are excited to meet that need and respond to the desires of the community."

The new exceptional-learners program will be created at OLDP's campus on West Metairie Avenue. Houston said the archdiocese chose the OLDP campus because the Holy Rosary campus needed significant improvements and because officials thought a school on a single floor would better serve students.

She said it was too soon to say with certainty how much tuition at the new school will be, though she estimated that it will be "somewhere in the middle" between Holy Rosary's $9,850 and OLDP's $5,350. 

Both Holy Rosary and OLDP serve students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. However, more than half of the students at OLDP don't fall in that category; those students will be given priority admission to other local Catholic schools with openings. 

"We are working closely with those families to help them as they discern where they want to go," Houston said. 

Families who benefit from the Louisiana Scholarship Program — commonly called the voucher program — will have to attend schools in Orleans or St. John the Baptist parishes if they want to retain their vouchers, Houston said. No schools on the east bank of Jefferson Parish are accepting new voucher students.  

One alternative to the vouchers, she said, is the state Tuition Donation Credit program, which offers a maximum of $4,200 a year for elementary and middle schools and $4,700 a year for high schools. But the voucher program usually shields the parent from paying any tuition. 

Houston said about half of the 15 Catholic schools on Jefferson's east bank take the tuition credits. For families who can't make up the difference between the tuition costs and the credit, the archdiocese offers other tuition assistance. 

Some have speculated that the recent decision by some other Catholic schools to add special-needs programming contributed to Holy Rosary's declining attendance. A large chunk of the school's enrollment drop — 23 percent — occurred between 2016 and 2018. However, Houston said, "There is no one reason (for) the decline in enrollment at Holy Rosary. We do not think the inclusion program had any bearing on that."

Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced an initiative three years ago to educate special-needs students alongside their peers in traditional classrooms rather than in special schools like Holy Rosary.

The archdiocese has seen an overall enrollment decline in recent years because of various factors including competition from public schools offering more specialized programs, tuition increases and a decline in the number of practicing Catholics. 

Holy Rosary enrolled only 110 students this year. At OLDP, enrollment is 167 students. The archdiocese considers a school financially viable when it has at least 200 students or when it has gathered substantial financial support through other means, such as fundraising or support from its church parish, Houston said. She declined to discuss any deficits the schools may have accumulated. 

There are no other closures planned for this year, officials have said. In addition to OLDP and Holy Rosary, St. Peter Claver in New Orleans and Sacred Heart of Jesus in Norco will shut their doors after this school year. 

Houston said she sees the changes as a painful but necessary part of redefining the archdiocesan school system for families who expect schools to meet more than just their religious needs. 

"The research suggests that families are looking at a variety of things (in choosing schools): curriculum, academic test scores, geography, and how close schools are to where people work," Houston said. "With parents having so much choice, we are taking a step back to look at what our community needs, so that we can meet their needs."


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.