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Boom to Bust to...Renewal?

America’s first Catholic schools date back to at least 1606, when Franciscan friars opened a school in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. In 1782, St. Mary’s in Philadelphia became the first parochial school in the United States, creating a tradition of Catholic education that thrived and eventually peaked in 1965, when approximately 5.5 million K-12 students attended more than 12,000 Catholic schools.


In stark contrast, enrollment since has steadily declined, plummeting by 70% to 1.6 million students attending fewer than 6,000 Catholic schools in 2021. The situation appears dire for Catholic education.


But there is hope. Dozens—possibly hundreds at this point—of Catholic schools across the country are not merely surviving in the 21st century, but thriving. They have increasing enrollment, and in some cases have waitlists of students eager to attend. They have clearly differentiated themselves compared to both the local public and private schools. They have typically embraced the study of classic texts, Latin, grammar, art, poetry, and music, in addition to the typical staples of history, math, and science. They prioritize the cultivation of wonder and virtue over the trendy concerns of college and career readiness. They have remained—or in many cases returned to being—authentically Catholic. They hire teachers whose faith and own sense of wonder are on fire.


Catholic School Playbook tells the stories of these successful Catholic schools and identifies their common themes so that other Catholic schools can follow their lead and contribute to a renewal of Catholic education in America.

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