In the face of dramatic enrollment declines over the past five years — 25 percent systemwide and two or more times as much at specific schools — the Monroe County Catholic School system has adopted a three-pronged plan aimed at making Catholic education affordable for more families. The plan combines school consolidation, redistribution of parish financial subsidies and pursuit of national academic accreditation.
In a letter sent to school parents and guardians Nov. 10, Bishop Matthew H. Clark noted that the diocese has since its inception “placed great importance and emphasis on the Catholic education of our children.” However, in light of trends challenging the diocese’s ability to preserve Catholic education, “it has become increasingly apparent that we must take some important steps to achieve our long-term goals,” he wrote.
Announced Friday, Nov. 12, by Bishop Clark and Sister Elizabeth Meegan, OP, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Rochester, the plan calls for the closing in June of four buildings now operating at less than 50-percent capacity.
St. John the Evangelist, Greece, will merge with St. Charles Borromeo School at the St. Charles site; St. John the Evangelist (Humboldt Street) will merge with St. Ambrose at the St. Ambrose site; and Sacred Heart School will merge with Holy Rosary School at the Holy Rosary site. St. Helen’s School in Gates will close, and parents with children at St. Helen’s are invited to enroll them in any Catholic school that is convenient to them.
In recent years, enrollment has declined sharply at these seven schools, whose combined student population has fallen almost 50 percent since 1999-2000 (see chart).
Sacred Heart and St. John’s in Greece have experienced the most severe declines, shrinking by more than two-thirds since 1999 in kindergarten through grade six. Fewer than 100 K-6 students are currently enrolled at each school.
The buildings’ conditions — identified through a 2003 capital-needs survey — played a major role in deciding where to locate the merged schools. The facilities offered by each location were another factor. For instance, St. Ambrose and St. Charles both have gymnasiums, Sister Meegan said. “Holy Rosary is the newest building in the system and also is handicapped-accessible,” she added.
The merged schools will receive new names, with recommendations to Bishop Clark to be made by the combined school communities, according to Michael Tedesco, diocesan spokesman. “In essence, we’re creating new schools,” Tedesco said. Parents of children currently attending the affected schools are invited to enroll in any diocesan school that has available space. Likewise, faculty from all seven schools will be invited to apply for positions at the newly merged schools, where they will receive hiring priority, he noted.
Sister Meegan acknowledged that the merger of Sacred Heart School with Holy Rosary will be very difficult for some Catholics to accept.
“I would very much have liked to have been able to retain a Catholic school at the cathedral parish,” she said. But the number of parents choosing to enroll their children at Sacred Heart has continued to decline, she said, and with such low enrollment “it simply becomes impossible for us to provide a quality program and keep costs for all parents at a level that is affordable.”
The 95 Sacred Heart students now receive instruction in classes of only 11 to 17 students, compared against a systemwide target of 20 to 25 students per class. In addition to driving up per-pupil costs throughout the system, continuing to operate with so few students in classes also takes a toll on students’ educational experiences, she said.
“Those children are frequently not divided evenly in terms of boys and girls, so the number of social interactions that the children have in elementary school is limited,” Sister Meegan noted. “In terms of academic stimulation … when you get down to very low numbers, the children pay a price in terms of (reduced) intellectual stimulation from their fellow students.”
In an effort to increase enrollment by bringing Catholic-school education within reach of more diocesan families, the plan also calls for redistribution of approximately $7 million in tuition subsidies.
“We have found in the last few years that we are losing students, not evenly across the board but principally in areas where (paying tuition) is an enormous sacrifice,” Sister Meegan said. “When we increase enrollment in all schools, everyone benefits because the per-pupil cost goes down. What we’re trying to do is provide the necessary aid, or as much of that as we can, so that our enrollment can not only stabilize but grow and so more people are able to choose Catholic schools. Everyone benefits from that.”
Parishioner families currently receive subsidies of about $1,500 per student — toward a full per-pupil cost of approximately $4,500 — regardless of family means. Under the new plan, families that are able to do so will bear a greater share of tuition costs, while those of lesser means will receive additional financial assistance.
Aid reallocation will be phased in over the next three academic years. Families that do not qualify or choose not to apply for financial assistance will see their parishioner subsidies drop to $1,000 per child in 2005-06. The amount of parishioner subsidy such families will receive in 2006-07 and thereafter has not yet been determined, but some discount will be maintained, Sister Meegan said.
The maximum 2005-06 tuition expense for one student in a parish-sponsored family that does not apply or does not qualify for financial aid will be $3,450, up $500 from the current year.
In response to feedback gathered from parents in 2002, the diocese also opted to maintain a multiple-child tuition discount and to implement a family tuition cap.
“No one with multiple children is going to pay the full cost of educating their children; no one who is Catholic and active in a parish will pay the full cost of educating their child,” she said.
In subsequent years, however, the tuition rate could rise or fall. “It may be possible that the per-pupil cost could go down. If it does, we will attempt to respond to that,” Sister Meegan said. “And if the per-pupil cost went up somewhat, we would have to respond to that. Again, our goal is to keep the cost down. That absolutely depends upon enrollment.”
Officials cannot project how much assistance families might receive until they know how many families will apply for aid, what range of assistance those families will need or what enrollment will be for 2005-06. Yet Sister Meegan said she hoped the new financial-aid plan would reduce tuition expenses for many families in 2005-06.
“The main thing that I would encourage is for all parents to apply in this first year,” she said, noting that the diocese is going to absorb the costs of processing applications and, for the first time, will refund the registration fee of any family that does not receive enough aid to afford Catholic education. “What we are trying to overcome is the fear or apprehension people have of the unknown. So we’re taking away any possible risk,” she said.
If families really believe “that they are simply unable to afford the current (parishioner) tuition, … then I have to believe that they will receive aid,” the superintendent said.
Officials plan to market the new plan to families who have withdrawn from the system for financial reasons as well as those who have never considered Catholic education to be within their reach.
Families seeking financial assistance will be asked to submit financial information to the independent firm Private School Aid Service of Lakewood, Ohio. PSAS will not share this information with any party, including the diocese. Instead, the agency will rank applicants in terms of their ability to pay tuition, provide the diocese with statistics on the range of need and assist diocesan officials in allocating available funds, Sister Meegan said.
The plan’s final component is pursuit of Middle States accreditation, a prestigious certification that the school system has met national criteria for excellence. And whereas other aspects of the plan apply only within Monroe County, all diocesan schools will participate in this process.
Sister Meegan described Middle States accreditation as a long-term planning process that begins with a self-study by the principal, faculty and parent representatives. It culminates in an academic audit by education professionals from around the nation who scrutinize the school system and provide an evaluation of strengths and recommendations for improvement.
“I always say, ‘Only the good can get better.’ I think our schools are really, really good and, therefore, I think that they’re positioned to make breakthroughs,” she said.
“I think we have to continually look at school quality, and how we can be more responsive to the needs of today’s children,” the superintendent added. “Continuous improvement is just what Catholic schools are about, and (Middle States) is a fairly formalized way of ensuring that continuous improvement happens and that people are involved in it at the local level.”