The pandemic leads to growth in Catholic school enrollment

St. Thomas More Academy, Raleigh, N.C. Courtesy of Diocese of Raleigh website.

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  • Catholic schools staying open during the pandemic helped to alleviate learning loss in children.
  • Giving parents a voice and focusing on communication, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills have made Catholic schools popular.
  • Diocese of Charlotte schools has seen an over 96% retention rate of students that enrolled in diocesan schools during the pandemic.

According to the National Catholic Educational Association, enrollment in Catholic schools has rebounded during the 2021-2022 school year, reaching record levels in some dioceses. Enrollment increased from 1.63 million to 1.69 million, a 3.5% jump.

“Though the statistics show that enrollment has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels — 1.74 million students enrolled in 2019 — the reversal is notable, as before the pandemic enrollment was trending down by 2% to 3% annually,” according to the National Catholic Registry.

The speed with which Catholic schools reopened for in-classroom instruction during the pandemic was a big difference.

“Catholic schools, on the whole, reopened for in-person instruction following the COVID-19 lockdowns much sooner than their public counterparts — most by September 2020. While 43% of public schools and 34% of charter schools offered in-person learning in September 2020, 92% of Catholic schools offered in-person learning at the same time, according to the NCEA.”

The change is notable because Catholic school enrollment was declining before the pandemic. As school choice booms across the U.S., could Catholic schools be a vital part of it?

The answer is yes, according to local Catholic leaders.

Schools in both the Diocese of Charlotte and the Diocese of Raleigh have seen significant increases in the number of students enrolled since the pandemic. 

According to its website, the Diocese of Raleigh saw its total current enrollment increase by 8.4% in 2021-2022 and another 2.2% this year, for a two-year increase of 10.6%, bringing the total number of students currently enrolled in 28 diocesan schools to 9,467.

The projected enrollment systemwide for the 20 schools in the Diocese of Charlotte for the new school year is 7,927 students. That’s up 4.4% from last year and 15% from the 2019-’20 school year when the pandemic began. 

Courtesy of the Diocese of Charlotte

Over 96% of the families enrolled in diocesan schools during the pandemic have stayed on, even after their former schools reopened or returned to normal.

Dr. Gregory Monroe, Superintendent of Diocese of Charlotte Schools, told Carolina Journal that various factors could be attributed to the growth of schools in the diocese during the pandemic.

Doing what is best for the children for their learning potential is, first and foremost, the most important thing, and that, he says, was accomplished by having classes stay in-person, albeit safely, 99% of the time through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We had this all-in mentality of everyone working together to prioritize what was best for the students, and now that we’re coming out of the pandemic, all the research is showing that learning losses were really minimized if we kept kids in person,” Monroe said.

They also try to differentiate between themselves and private schools and don’t have an admissions test to be able to attend. “We really want to be a place where people of all races and religious backgrounds can come in and feel welcome and be supported,” he said.

Monroe said it’s important to note that about 20% of the schools’ population are non-Catholics, and they’ve doubled the number of people of color on their staff and the student enrollment over the past five years.

Both dioceses attribute some of the growth to financial aid programs like the Opportunity Scholarship program that assists underserved populations that may not otherwise be able to attend the schools in the dioceses. Last school year, more than 900 students enrolled in Raleigh’s diocesan schools received Opportunity Scholarships. This year, that number is expected to be more than 1,100.

Monroe said they also raise money internally for families wanting to attend their schools. 

Every student in the Charlotte Diocese graduates, and 96% go on to college. Monroe attributes that to the school system providing pathways for all learners to succeed by focusing on building character, leadership skills, and critical thinking in a Christian environment.

“Every student is uniquely gifted to us by God. Each one has a unique set of skills and talents, and so because of that, we need to find ways for that student to be successful,” he said.

Monroe said surveys show that parents recognize that academics in their schools are solid, where the focus is on communication, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills 

He said having a very family-centric environment is vital for supporting families and working together for the best education for their children.

“We really see that our job is to support parents as primary educators, and I think that’s been received really well by our local communities,” Monroe said. So as a Catholic school, we couldn’t do all the good things we do without an “all-in” mentality from everyone who’s a part of it, so that means as a parent, we do expect them to be in the schools.”

Monroe said parents are encouraged to help their children by working with them on their homework and engaging in different parental events and activities. It gives every parent a chance to be involved in the life of the school. “They take a real leadership role in helping chart the future of what that school is,” he said. “They said they really appreciated that. It’s not about politics, it’s about the people.”

He also credits more people moving into the area from other states who have previously sent their children to Catholic schools and having parents as ambassadors by getting the word out about the schools as other reasons for the growth. 

The diocese has been working on projects, including new classroom space and buildings, to accommodate the influx of students throughout the pandemic and beyond. 

There is currently a waitlist for a handful of its schools. A long-range planning committee is looking at future strategic planning processes. 

Monroe said the future of the schools depends on how well they serve families and their children. “We recognize that parents know their kids best, so they’re going to pick the education that’s best for their child,” he said. “We really want to provide that personalized education for each student. We want to grow intentionally and in a way that really keeps the primary focus on what’s best for those students and the families coming to us.”

The Diocese of Raleigh is also exploring the feasibility of a new diocesan high school to serve the Triangle region.