Academic journal article Catholic Education

Developing a Predictive Metric to Assess School Viability

Academic journal article Catholic Education

Developing a Predictive Metric to Assess School Viability

Article excerpt

This article examines a wide range of parish school indicators that can be used to predict long-term viability.


Catholic elementary school enrollment peaked in 1965, when 4.491 million students were educated in over 10,000 Catholic schools across the country (United States Catholic Conference, 1976). Since then, Catholic elementary school enrollment and the number of schools have dropped back to 1920 levels (see Table 1). Numerous reasons for this decline have been offered. McLellan (2000) identified the lack of leadership on the part of the Church hierarchy and their unwillingness to make critical changes in governance and administration, the diminished value and utility placed on Catholic schools by Catholic parents who had entered the American economic and cultural mainstream after World War II, theological shifts regarding the purpose and effectiveness of Catholic education in the period immediately following Vatican II, organizational changes, such as the declining number of vowed women religious and the hiring of lay teachers, and demographic shifts as reasons for the decline.


During the later part of the 20th century, Catholics participated in the mass migration of the White middle class from the city to the suburbs (Convey, 1992; Greeley, 1959; McGreevy, 1996). As the White middle class moved out, African Americans, who are proportionately far less likely to be Catholic, moved into the urban areas.

Catholics had abandoned the inner-city parish-school infrastructure, moving to the suburbs en masse, thereby greatly expanding the population in areas lacking parish schools. The Diocese of Cleveland provides a vivid example of what has happened in many urban centers. The City of Cleveland lost 409,192 residents between 1950 and 1990, while Cuyohoga County grew by 432,000 (Harris, 1996). In 1950, average parish membership in the city and in the suburbs was 2,668 and 2,488 respectively; by 1990, the city parishes had dropped in membership to an average of 1,666, while the suburban parish average membership had more than doubled to 5,617 (Harris, 1996).

More recent quantitative research supports the contention that changing demography has contributed to the closure of Catholic schools. McLellan (2000) found that the 20 dioceses with the largest Catholic school enrollment (the Top 20) accounted for 62% of the national Catholic elementary school population in 1940, but only 42% of the national Catholic elementary population in 1990. Furthermore, Top 20 enrollment declines from 1960 to 1990 were related to White population declines in their central cities. Interestingly enough, McLellan (2000) found that the more urban dioceses seemed to be more successful in stemming the decline in the proportion of parishes with schools. This paradoxical finding is reconciled when consideration is given to the Herculean efforts made by large urban dioceses to keep urban parish schools open even while the White Catholic population vacated the parish boundaries.

A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA; 2006) found that "some schools reached critical tipping points during this period [2000-2005] as the demographic changes that had been taking place for more than five decades caught up with the most vulnerable campuses" (p. 1). The study found that in 2005, 22% of Catholic elementary schools were located in counties that had a loss in Catholic population or very low growth since the 1950s: "The current and emerging geographic centers for potential Catholic elementary students in the 21st century no longer closely overlap as well with the Catholic elementary school system that was primarily designed and built in the early 20th century" (p. 2).


The number of vowed religious serving in Catholic schools dropped precipitously during the 1960s. By 2005, religious teachers in Catholic schools comprised 5% of the total teaching staff, down from the slightly greater than 90% common prior to 1950 (see Table 2). …

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