Catholic schools search for something to celebrate

Catholic Schools Week falls at an inopportune time this year, as many Catholic elementary schools around the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are having trouble getting students in the door.

According to reports from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, enrollment in Wisconsin private schools, religious and secular, has decreased about 15 percent from the 2000-’01 school year to the 2009-’10 school year. With the continuing economic downturn, funding for these schools is drying up and enrollment rates are crashing fast.

For example, St. James Catholic School in Mukwonago announced Wednesday it will close at the end of this school year because of falling enrollment. Attempts to reach St. James administrators were unsuccessful.

Declining Catholic school enrollment appears to be isolated to elementary schools, as reports show several years of increasing enrollment in Catholic high schools.

Sue Nelson was named interim superintendent of Catholic schools in the Milwaukee Archdiocese on Jan. 28. Former superintendent David Lodes resigned the position Jan. 18, citing “health concerns and personal reasons” in an e-mail addressed to priests, parish and school officials.

Nelson is in charge of taking over the deteriorating system in need of a bailout.

“Obviously, we have some schools struggling with enrollment more than others,” Nelson said Wednesday. “Enrollment is a challenge. It is declining. This is a trend within our diocese, within the city and really across the state.”

Nelson said the economy greatly affects any tuition-driven institution, with Catholic schools’ enrollment steadily declining in recent years.

“It affects donations to parishes, and in turn the ability of schools to give financial assistance,” she said. “It also impacts the ability to receive funding for the schools.”

Nelson said they do have a reason for optimism, as there was only a minimal decrease in enrollment from 2008-’09.

The schools are doing what they can to offset the financial burden on families looking to send their children to Catholic schools, she said.

“Our schools are continually and actively seeking funding, and every school in the diocese has scholarship endowments and tuition assistance available,” Nelson said.

St. John the Evangelist Parish School, with 184 kindergarten through eighth-grade students offers financial aid, including a tuition break for sending more than one child to the school.

Mary Laidlaw Otto, St. John’s principal, said she predicts the 2010-’11 enrollment levels for the Greenfield school will drop five percent from this year’s number. The enrollment for 2009-’10 remained steady from 2008-’09, she said.

The prediction is based on the number of baptisms the church performs as well as the younger siblings of current students, Otto said.

“Though the economy didn’t hit us the hardest, it is of significance to our open enrollment, and we do have one or two families each year say that no matter how much they want to get their child a Catholic education, they just cannot afford to send them here,” she said.

Otto said St. John’s takes its Catholic identity very seriously. She said 98 percent of students are Catholic.

She estimated that around 35 to 50 percent of St. John’s students attend Catholic high schools after graduation, with Pius XI on 135 N. 76th St. and St. Thomas More on 2601 E. Morgan Ave. drawing the largest number of students.

St. Thomas More has bucked the trend of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, improving its current enrollment to 436 students from 392 in 2007, according to the school’s president, Bob Pauly.

Pauly said the school’s focus on innovation has revolutionized the way parents and students are approaching the high school. He identified the school’s motto as  “Inspired by Christ … Driven by Innovation.”

“We have really reinvented St. Thomas More,” Pauly said.

Offering a biomedical science class and wireless Internet within the school, Pauly said he knows students are drawn to the modern aspects, although the school remains truly Catholic by offering four years of religion classes.

“A new day needs to dawn in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and I believe this (approach) could be this new day.”

“We just have to weather the storm of the current economic times and people will eventually come back,” Otto said.