Christian schools fail the recession test

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: private school closures.

Even those who haven’t lost jobs during the coronavirus lockdown are looking at the future a little nervously and cutting back on spending. For some, those cutbacks include private-school tuition.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Declining enrollment has forced some schools to close. A handful are independent private schools. But the vast majority are religious ones. Catholic schools in particular are bearing the brunt of the trend.

WORLD correspondent Laura Edghill reports.

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: The National Catholic Educational Association estimates that about 100 schools have folded in the past month or so. They expect that number could double before fall. Many of the closures caught families off-guard.

Megan August’s four boys all attend Academy of Saint Therese. It offered classes in Pre-K through grade eight just north of Newark, New Jersey, along a scenic stretch of the Hudson River.

AUGUST: We always know the risk is there. But when you have a community that’s so tight and really flourishes with each other—and we take pride in our fundraising and things like that—not only do you not expect it to come to your school, but you clearly don’t expect it in a time like we’re in today.

Saint Therese is one of nine elementaries and one high school closing their doors this year in Newark alone. Cardinal Joseph Tobin explained the decision in a heartfelt letter to families in the archdiocese. He said the seeds of the closures were already planted prior to the pandemic. But he described the closures as an irreplaceable loss to the community.

Those irreplaceable losses are impacting other cities as well. Just outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Lebanon Catholic School lost more than one-third of its K-12 enrollment in the last five years. Bishop Ronald Gainer told local NBC affiliate WGAL the historic school has operated in the Diocese of Harrisburg since the mid 1800s.

GAINER: Please know this was not an easy decision for your pastors, nor for me, especially in light of all the challenges all of us are facing.

But with the national surge in pandemic-related job losses, many families simply can’t afford Catholic school tuition anymore. The average cost for elementary grades runs about $5,000 dollars a year, but Catholic high school can cost $11,000 dollars or more annually. And parishes that normally subsidize tuition for low-income students are now strapped for cash because the stay-at-home orders that cancelled weekly Mass also interrupted tithing.

The Catholic school closings will displace thousands of students nationwide. That’s raising concerns about where they will land in a school landscape already rife with uncertainty. But many communities still have private school options.

Lynn Swaner is the chief strategy and innovation officer for the Association of Christian Schools International. It surveyed its 2,300 Protestant and evangelical members in April.

SWANER: In our survey we asked a number of questions about enrollment and about new student inquiries, because those are very often good indicators of the health of the school looking towards the next year. And certainly schools do use those indicators to project into the future. And what we found is that for the majority of schools, their re-enrollment numbers were holding steady. And so that’s good news.

Swaner said that, unlike the nation’s Catholic schools, the association’s member schools reported only a handful of permanent closings. Instead, most are using the public health crisis to expand into virtual and hybrid instruction.

While many public schools fumbled for weeks with the transition to distance learning, 80 percent of A-C-S-I member schools missed fewer than five days of instruction. Some even picked up new students along the way as families grew tired of waiting for their local schools to provide lessons.

SWANER: Schools are looking at how to be nimble in light of the changing environment. Others are looking at offering completely online programs for the first time, whether it be to domestic or international students. And they’re also looking to say “Ok, we have this challenge. Not only do we continue to need to be sustainable, but potentially how do we reach more families that haven’t been able to access Christian education before?”

Meanwhile, friends and alumni are rallying around some of the closing Catholic schools, praying and asking school and church leaders for a change of heart. Administrators at the award-winning Academy of Our Lady Peace in New Providence, New Jersey, petitioned the Archdiocese of Newark to reconsider closing their school. The more than 1,200 signatures and nearly 500 comments they submitted proved persuasive. Church leaders eventually reversed their decision, giving the community back its beloved school.

Efforts on behalf of Newark’s Saint Therese, where Megan August’s boys attend, did not have the same success. Their community mounted a fundraising and petition effort as well, but the archdiocese said that in their case, the decision was final.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Laura Edghill.

(Photo by Jessie Wardarski, Associated Press) A staff member at Quigley Catholic High School in Baden, Pa., prepares student transcripts after the school’s closure.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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