Catholic Elementary Schools: What Do Trend Data Indicate?

By McDonald, Dale | Momentum, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

Catholic Elementary Schools: What Do Trend Data Indicate?


McDonald, Dale, Momentum


Study commissioned by NCEA reveals grounds for "caution optimis" about the future of Catholic elementary schools

Catholic schools in the nation have a long and noble history, dating back to the French and Spanish settlements that preceded the establishment of the United States of America. With the 19th-century influx of immigrants from Catholic nations, the growth of Catholic education was steady and extraordinary. Before the Civil War, there were approximately 200 Catholics chools in the United States; that number increased to more than 5,000 by the turn of the century. Much of that growth may be attributable to the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), which mandated erecting a school within every parish. While that goal was never reached, creating schools was a priority for the church throughout the first half of the 20th century.

By the early 1960s, U. S. Catholic school enrollment reached its peak, enrolling more than 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 schools across the nation. The 1970s and 1980s saw a steep decline in the number of both schools and students. By 1990, approximately 2.5 million students attended 8,719 schools.

From the mid 1990s though 2000, there was a steady enrollment increase (1.3 percent) despite continued closings of schools. However, between the 2000 and the 2005 school years, there was an accelerated decline in the number of elementary schools (5 percent) and in the number of students enrolled (11.6 percent).

The most serious declines occurred among the elementary schools, particularly those in the large urban areas of the country where there was a 7.6 percent school decline and 15.2 percent enrollment decline. During the past school year, 2.3 million students enrolled in 7,589 Catholic schools.

To better understand what was happening and to help plan for the future, NCEA commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct a national study of the status of Catholic elementary schools in the United States during the period of increasing declines.

The results of that study have been published as "Primary Trends, Challenges and Outlook: A Report on Catholic Elementary Schools 2000-2005." More than 2,000 surveys were conducted with parents, school administrators, pastors and superintendents to ascertain where and why the demand for Catholic schools is growing and where and why it has diminished. This full report (271 pages) presents a comprehensive analysis of the multiple factors impacting Catholic school closings, as well as the outlook for the future of Catholic education.

Cautious Optimism About the Future

The report concluded that, despite numerous closings of schools, the national outlook is "cautiously optimistic." Several factors provide support for this position.

The data substantiate that the demand for Catholic schools is strong.

Almost a quarter of the Catholic parents surveyed indicated that they have enrolled a child in Catholic school, with another 4 percent reporting that they attempted to do so but were unable because of lack of space and/or insufficient tuition assistance. Of those with children still not old enough to attend school, 26 percent of parents intend to choose a Catholic school in the future.

Parental satisfaction with the schools they have chosen for their children is generally quite positive.

Parents believe that Catholic elementary schools are better than public schools in terms of academic standards, moral issues and discipline. The five highest-ranking factors influencing parental decisions to select a Catholic school, in order, are quality religious education, safe environment, quality academic instruction, discipline and order and sense of community. The response from school administrators, superintendents and pastors was 95-100 percent positive about the ability of the school to meet each of these expectations of parents. …

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