ot much keeps Archbishop Gregory Aymond up at night. But one thing does make him toss and turn.
In the past four years, especially after Hurricane Katrina, Catholic school enrollment has been steadily falling. Finding ways to reverse the trend has been the most challenging work of his administration.
"It worries me," Aymond said. "There is a decline and there has been a decline for the last several years, nationally as well as locally." Catholic schools took a hit from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and have continued losing students since, with enrollment dropping almost 5 percent since 2007, from 40,625 to 38,434. It's down 19 percent from pre-Katrina levels, and with 20 fewer schools.
Nationally, Catholic school enrollment has shrunk 20 percent over the past decade, from 2.6 million to 2.1 million students, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. More than 1,600 schools have closed or consolidated, with elementary schools taking the biggest hit.
Catholic officials are worried about declining enrollment at Catholic schools in New Orleans and nationwide, including Our Lady of Divine Providence School in Metairie, Louisiana.
RNS Photo: Brett Duke/The Times-Picayune.
Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of New York proposed shuttering 32 schools in what church officials described as the largest reorganization in that school system's history. In Baltimore, 13 parochial schools are set to close. "It's significant, and it's disturbing," said Sister Dale McDonald, the national association's public policy director. "We're talking about a half million students."
The reasons for the decline, both nationally and locally, are numerous. Families are smaller, tuition is higher and public charter and magnet schools are more popular than ever.
The trend is especially surprising in the New Orleans area, where the percentage of students attending nonpublic schools has historically been one of the highest in the United States.
Catholic University professors John Convey and Leonard DeFiore plan to dissect every aspect of the area's [New Orleans] Catholic school community. In addition to meeting with the top leadership, they want to hear from pastors, teachers, principals, parents and students.
"We'll have a number of public meetings," said Convey, who has done similar work in other cities. "We'll ask people what from their perspective are the challenges and the problems."
Aymond will then appoint a steering committee to work with Convey and DeFiore, and together they will develop a set of recommendations for the archdiocese.
Among other issues, the researchers will look at demographics to determine the possibility for future growth and the need for further school consolidation and closings. The archdiocese, meanwhile, will work to boost enrollment, from increasing advertising to pushing open house attendance to fundraising.
"We have made conscious and tangible efforts to put the word out," Aymond said, "to remind people that Catholic schools are available, what their purpose is and invite them in."