Five years ago, facing slumping enrollment and the ever-rising costs of operating its network of Catholic schools, the Archdiocese of New Orleans had a plan to fight back.
Armed with recommendations from a two-year study conducted by experts from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., church officials undertook a systemwide restructuring that aimed to increase donations, improve marketing, unify grade configurations and set more stringent criteria for when to close schools.
But the plan had only limited success. Now, the archdiocese is grappling with more difficult choices brought on by an ever-shrinking number of families willing to pay for private, religious education.
The heyday of Catholic schools in the New Orleans area appears to be gone.
Just over 34,000 students are attending a network of Catholic schools run by the archdiocese, parishes, religious orders and even corporations this year, down 11 percent since 2009 and far below its peak in the 1960s, when the archdiocese served roughly 63,000 students.
In the last two weeks, officials have announced that four Catholic schools will close their doors by the end of this school year, even more than when Archbishop Gregory Aymond shuttered three schools at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
All four of the schools — St. Peter Claver and Holy Rosary in New Orleans, Our Lady of Divine Providence in Metairie and Sacred Heart of Jesus in Norco — had seen their enrollment drop to well below 200 students, a key threshold. Falling below that number makes it hard to continue operating.
After operating in Norco for 60 years, Sacred Heart of Jesus School will close at the end of this school year, officials with the Archdiocese …
Some were also spending much more per student than tuition and fundraising were able to cover.
“It is not sustainable,” Catholic Schools Superintendent RaeNell Houston said.
Catholic schools in other parts of the country are facing some of the same challenges. Tuition is failing to keep up with the rising cost of education even as it increases to levels above what many parents can pay. Lower birth rates and fewer baptisms among Catholics mean a decrease in prospective students. And the clergy sex-abuse scandal has tarnished the church’s image.
But in New Orleans, Catholic schools also face competition from a huge array of no-cost charter schools, many of which offer specialized curriculums.
With that competition in mind, Houston said, the archdiocese wants to find ways to shed Catholic schools’ reputation as overly traditional and re-imagine what it means to offer a Catholic education without abandoning the traditions and values that have drawn students for decades.
In the coming years, the system hopes to broaden its offerings by creating schools that focus on foreign language immersion, the arts, math and science, and other areas. Special-education programs will increase, and other initiatives are in the works, Houston said.
“With parents having so much choice, we are taking a step back to re-evaluate what the community needs, what the desires are and what they are calling for from Catholic schools,” Houston said. “We cannot continue doing what we’ve always done just because we’ve done it that way.”
A traditional education
The height of Catholic education in the metro area was in the 1960s, when there were more than 150 Catholic schools in the eight civil parishes of the New Orleans archdiocese.
Catholic children typically attended their parish elementary school, then progressed on to one of a number of high schools scattered across the area, like Archbishop Rummel or Mount Carmel.
Parents expected a traditional, college preparatory education, steeped in discipline and religious education. These schools were typically no-frills, but they were affordable, even for large, working-class families.
As church attendance declined over the decades, so too did Catholic education. By the early 1990s, the number of students attending Catholic schools had fallen to 53,000, and the archdiocese faced the difficult task of closing schools.
By 2004, the year before Hurricane Katrina devastated many school campuses and caused some families to relocate, Catholic school attendance had slipped to 49,500.
Despite the declines, New Orleans area students are still much more likely to attend Catholic and other private schools than in other U.S. cities, according to a recent study by the website Trulia. More than 25 percent of students in the metro area attended private schools in 2015, compared with 10 percent nationwide.
Now, what has emerged are a handful of powerhouse Catholic schools attracting lots of students, like Jesuit, St. Catherine of Siena and Christian Brothers, while many others are just getting by, with only a few hundred.
Meanwhile, there is a broader movement of going back to public schools.
Balancing quality, cost
In addition to getting religious education in schools — a draw for many families — many parents were long attracted to Catholic schools by graduation rates and college attendance numbers that surpassed public schools in New Orleans.
But faced with the rising cost of Catholic school tuition, coupled with the emergence of high-performing magnet, charter and traditional public schools, some parents are choosing to send their children to school for free.
Jessica Arbour, of New Orleans, attended Catholic school in Chicago until sixth grade, and she was hoping to continue the tradition with her 2-year-old daughter Sofia after moving to New Orleans.
However, “I would have to work not only a full-time job but a part-time job with it,” said Arbour, 26, a nanny who is expecting her second child in May.
Historically, Catholic schools have been less expensive than other private schools, which can cost families between $13,000 and $20,000 a year.
But parents are feeling the sticker shock of Catholic schools more and more. Since 2012, the average tuition in New Orleans-area Catholic schools rose from $3,400 to $6,000 a year for elementary school and from $8,000 to $9,800 a year for high school, according to data provided by the archdiocese.
Officials say tuition increases are due to rising costs. In the past, Catholic schools could rely on very inexpensive labor — largely men and women in religious orders — to provide instruction. But each year, the numbers of religious in schools decline and are replaced by lay teachers who expect a competitive salary.
“The reality is the cost of educating children is not equal to the cost of tuition,” Houston said. “There is always a gap financially.”
St. Peter Claver School, a historic Catholic elementary school in the heart of Treme, will close at the end of this academic year, the Archdio…
For some low-income families, help has come through a state-managed voucher program for private schools, but every year, there are more families requesting that aid than there are scholarships.
In addition, the alternatives to Catholic schools are getting better.
New Schools for New Orleans, a pro-charter organization, reports that only 11 percent of New Orleans students attended the lowest-performing public schools in 2017, down from 62 percent in 2005. New Orleans was also among the top 10 districts nationwide for academic growth in a 2017 Stanford University study.
To attract and retain students, Houston said, Catholic schools need to demonstrate that they can offer the same opportunities as high-performing public schools.
She said she plans to spend the next year surveying communities and asking parents what they most want to see added to Catholic schools.
Houston also vowed not to close schools that are struggling in areas that don’t have other Catholic options nearby — at least not yet.
“We are very focused on what their needs are and how we can meet them,” she said.
'A brighter side to this'
On a recent weekday, Deacon Lawrence Houston was feeling optimistic as he walked the halls of St. Peter Claver School, where he’s slated to serve as principal until the end of the school year, when the nearly 100-year-old institution is scheduled to close.
His school has a deficit, has faltered academically and has failed to attract 200 students, the threshold that the archdiocese says makes a school viable.
But he remains confident in the church's overall plan to replace faltering schools with those that better meet the needs of the community.
He said there are already discussions underway about opening an arts school where Peter Claver is now — a compromise that would blend Catholic instruction with the vibrant African-American arts culture of the historic Treme area.
“Nothing is concrete, as of yet,” he said. “But there’s a brighter side to this.”
RaeNell Houston agrees. She pointed to the planned opening of St. Thérèse Academy — another school that plans to cater to parents' demands by offering an individualized curriculum with low student-teacher ratios for children with mild to moderate learning disabilities.
“For me, the church is a very traditional institution. We value our traditions and rich legacy,” she said. “But we have to ask: How do we reconnect and re-engage with our families? I think that’s what we are all doing.”
Among those who remain loyal to Catholic education is Robert Dufresne, 60, a refinery worker who sends his 8-year-old daughter Harley to Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Norco, which will close at the end of this year.
Dufresne said he plans to send Harley to another Catholic school next year.
“It’s been a great community,” he said.
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