Have we been too quick to celebrate the 62,000 new students enrolled in Catholic schools post-Covid?
At the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, Catholic schools across the country announced increased enrollment as they welcomed an additional 62,000 students into their school communities. After averaging a decline of more than 65,000 students annually for over 50 years, a year in the black seems like a cause for celebration. More students translates to a greater opportunity to impact families and the formation of their children. It also means higher tuition revenue and more money to spend on teacher salaries and other resources.
Catholic media have been quick to applaud the growth in Catholic school enrollment. Consider recent headlines:
Not to rain on the parade, but noticeably absent from the media’s coverage of the enrollment trend reversal is an exploration of key assumptions and questions:
Is growth always good? What caused the growth? Did people’s perception of Catholic schools improve or did their perception of the other schools decline? Are these new families aligned with the mission of Catholic schools or were they just tired of their public school being remote? In what circumstances can the addition of new students be damaging to a Catholic school? What are the leaders of Catholic schools doing to protect the Catholic purpose of their schools?
To be clear, many of us would love to see Catholic school enrollment soar to millions of students across the country. Imagine a return to the 1965 high water mark of 5.5 million K-12 students in Catholic schools? Even a return to enrollment of just 2 million students, last seen a decade ago, would be progress. But it is important to recognize the importance of school culture and how much it impacts the formation of each child.
Anyone who has ever been a student, parent, or teacher in a school knows that the culture of a school depends on its people—and can change year-to-year as the people change. The addition of even a single new family can change the culture of a school—for better or for worse depending largely on how well the culture of the family aligns with the culture of the school.
This is especially true as the broader culture becomes less Christian, Catholics become more counter-cultural, and children gain access to smart phones and other devices at a younger age.
Nearly 1.3 million students have fled government schools since 2020 because of COVID-related school closures and the rapid spread of dangerous ideologies against parents’ objections.
Catholic schools were a natural fit for some of those families, but perhaps not all.
Today, for the first time ever, many new families applying for admission to Catholic schools may be motivated more by what they don’t want in a school, than by what they do want. They may not fully appreciate that Catholic schools are an extension of the Catholic Church, and that Catholic families who sacrifice to send their children to Catholic schools do so with the expectation that their children will be immersed in a thoroughly Catholic environment.
That’s why it’s more important than ever that the leaders of Catholic schools take steps to discern whether families applying for admission will contribute positively to the school’s Catholic culture. Equally important, they must be willing to turn away those that threaten to destroy it.
Deacon Chris Roberts, president of Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, Pennsylvania, says it is not possible to assess a family's suitability without exploring key topics with them in conversation. He explains:
Careful, thoughtful admissions interviews are essential.... When you admit a family, you bring their values, their faith, their habits into your school's culture. You have to be on your guard against admitting a student/family who are hostile, skeptical, or have some impediment to advancing and protecting your mission.
Michael Van Hecke, president of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, California, agrees. He says interviewing families is one of the most important duties of a school leader. He identifies two primary goals of the interview:
To unabashedly inform prospective families of the nature, goals, and expectations of the educational and community life of the school.
To learn the culture of families seeking admission so that an informed judgment about suitability can be made.
Roberts says the admissions process presents a unique opportunity for school leaders: it is never as easy to have frank, open conversations about baseline values and expectations as in an admissions interview. He explains:
That is your moment to assess the family's impact on your school's culture. That is your moment to shape the family's expectations, to let the family know what the school is asking of them, to let the family know how the school will expect the family to grow and contribute. Your work to evangelize and form the family starts in the admissions process. And if for some reason there's a problem, and the challenges with a particular family are more than you can handle, it's always easier to decline an application than expel/suspend/say good-bye to an enrolled family.
Interviews should be friendly and conversational, but also direct and productive. Here are a few widely used questions that are designed to spark discussion while uncovering a family's beliefs, attitudes, and habits:
What does the family faith life look like? Do you attend church and/or pray at home?
Does the idea of daily prayer excite you or does it sound burdensome?
What is the culture of learning like in your home?
What are your family practices with social media and technology? What kinds of constraints have you put in place?
What is a favorite book? TV show? Movie? Song?
What are your thoughts about the Catholic Church? Do you agree with the Church’s teachings on sexuality, marriage, and the complementarity of the sexes?
To Students: How do you spend your time from 3 pm to dinner and in the evenings?
To Parents: How do you see our school assisting you as primary educators?
Andrew Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy, a non-profit organization that provides training and resources for schools and teachers. For 17 years, he was the head of Trinity School at Meadow View in Falls Church, Virginia. During that time, he prioritized admissions interviews as a key tool to help shape and protect his school’s culture.
Reflecting on his leadership of Trinity School, he says one of the key questions he needed to answer through the interview process was whether the school could benefit the child—not just whether the boy or girl would willingly enter into and embrace the school’s culture. He explains:
To say yes to that question was to acknowledge that the kid needed what we had, that he or she was poor, as in needed the knowledge, loves, and practices of our school. The work of mercy we offered met those needs. If I could answer yes to both vital questions—that the young person would benefit from us and would willingly enter into the culture we offered— then I knew I had come close to or had actually landed on an acceptance. If other qualities were in place—like curiosity and music—then I had hit paydirt.
Roberts says all humans, and especially children, are a work in progress. It is not necessary for all families to perfectly understand and embrace a school’s culture at the outset of the admissions process, but it is necessary for parents to be self-aware and open to learning how to better support their children's education.
"A humble, teach-able, open family is a gift," he says. "Working with families like that is part of education and evangelism. But a family in denial, a family that is brittle and defensive, with the walls up and a skeptical spirit...that is trouble, especially in a small school where one or two unhappy families can have outsize influence."
Catholic schools have a long and beautiful tradition of accepting non-Catholic students who are willing to encounter Catholic beliefs and traditions with an open heart.
Van Hecke says it’s important to understand the Church’s desire for Catholic schools to be evangelical, but “we cannot misunderstand what that means.” First of all, he says, Canon law is clear about the responsibility of bishops and pastors to provide Catholic education for the Catholics in their jurisdiction. Therefore, our schools must evangelize and catechize our own flock first, filling the schools first with families open to being formed in Catholic culture.
He says then remaining empty seats can go to non-Catholic families who also exhibit an openness to the Catholic mission.
“Catholic or non-Catholic, school communities cannot afford to have families and students who are intellectually and culturally antithetical to the mission of the Catholic school,” he says.
Peter Crawford, headmaster of St. Jerome Institute in Washington, DC, agrees. His school accepts non-Catholic students but seeks to have the majority of its families be practicing Catholics who share the school’s educational philosophy.
“While there may be many differences between our families,” he explains, “we want all of them to be community minded, to understand education as a formation in reality and to support the meaningful challenges we offer their children and share in our final desire for their child: sanctity.”
The good news for Catholic schools is that tightening up the admissions process is as easy as having honest conversations with applying families—and being willing to turn some away. Otherwise they risk a school culture that is little different from the public school down the street, which in 1980 may not have been too bad, but unfortunately in 2023 is likely toxic.