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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 proliferated in the 1800s and eventually peaked during the 1965-1966 school year, when approximately 5.7 million K-12 students (over 10% of all school-age children in the US) attended more than 12,000 Catholic schools.


Parents across all income levels and from a wide range of backgrounds chose Catholic schools for their children. The academic, moral, and spiritual formation provided by Catholic schools was perceived as at least equal to, and in some ways better than, what they could expect to receive at the free neighborhood public schools. By the numbers and despite long odds, Catholic education in the United States became a huge success story!

Unfortunately, times have changed since that high water mark in 1965. Over the last 60 years, despite the number of self-identifying Catholics in the US growing by over 50%, Catholic school enrollment has plummeted by 75%, and over half of Catholic schools have closed. In the 2020-2021 school year just 1.6 million students attended fewer than 6,000 Catholic schools. The last couple years have witnessed a slight uptick to 1.7 million students, but it remains to be seen if this is a lasting positive trend or a minor reprieve related to public school closings during the pandemic.

So what happened? Is the collapse merely a symptom of the decline that the Catholic Church and Christianity more broadly have experienced within the United States and much of the world? After all, the waning of the number of American religious sisters from 180,000 in 1965 to less than 50,000 today has had an enormous impact on the Catholic teaching profession. The loss of cheap labor has led directly to substantial tuition increases. And the steep declines in Catholic marriages, baptisms, and Mass attendance would seem to indicate that parents place less value on spiritual formation. No doubt, the struggles of the Catholic Church are a substantial reason for the decline of Catholic schools.

However, when you look closely at most Catholic schools today, they not only appear very similar to the nearby public schools, they also seem different from what Catholic schools once were. Some changes, such as smaller class sizes, have been positive. Other changes have resulted in a less Catholic and less differentiated school experience. Sacraments are less frequent. Latin is no longer required, and often not taught at all. Classic texts - from Augustine to Aquinas to Dante - are no longer required reading and have largely disappeared. The schools have become less Catholic, both spiritually and intellectually. It's as if school leaders have forgotten what made attending Mass, learning Latin, and reading the classics so important. The focus has shifted from cultivation of virtue to college and career readiness with a growing presence of computers in the classroom, test driven AP classes, and a broad dumbing down of the curriculum.

The news is not all bleak! In fact, we now have great cause for hope, not dissimilar from the prodigal son who lost and then found his way. Hundreds of Catholic schools across the country are not merely surviving in the 21st century; in fact, they are thriving. Parents who discover them are often thrilled at the formation and education their children are receiving, often to the point of benign envy once they realize how deficient their own education and faith formation were. These schools - some of which are startups and some turnarounds - have increasing enrollment, and, in many cases, waitlists of students eager to attend. More significantly though, 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. Possibly most importantly, they hire teachers whose faith and own sense of wonder are infectious, and are able to transmit this passion to their students.

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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