Many were shocked and saddened in January when Archbishop Charles Chaput
and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced the closing of 48 of its schools,
about a quarter of its total. The
Archdiocese has lost more than a third of its students in the last decade,
leaving it today with about the same number of students as it had a century
Based on numbers, Catholic schools in America have been in a state of
decline over the past half-century.
In the early 1960s, more than five million children attended Catholic
schools compared to a little over two million today. This decline occurred at a time when the overall Catholic
population in the U.S. increased by more than 20 million.
New Catholic schools open every year, but are far outnumbered by the
number that are closed or consolidated.
The National Catholic Education Association reported that 32 new
Catholic schools opened in the country in 2010-11, but 172 were consolidated or
While there is much to lament about Catholic education in America, some
Catholic elementary and high schools have managed to thrive. This has occurred despite a troubled
economy, smaller family sizes and a secular culture increasing hostile to
traditional religion. CWR
recently talked with representatives of five such
schools (all opened since 1974) who offered an overview of their schools and
shared their insights as to how their schools have been successful.
JSerra Catholic High School
in San Juan Capistrano,
California opened its doors to 153 students nine years ago. Today, it
serves more than 1,000. It has strong academic credentials,
with more than 99% of its graduates going on to college and AP passage
far above state and national norms.
It is also known for its strong sports programs.
But JSerra’s most notable feature is its Catholicity. Co-founder Tim Busch said, “If your
kids finish school and don’t have the Faith, they leave with nothing. The Faith is the most important thing
they can have to guide them through their lives.”
Fr. Robert Spitzer, who previously was president of Gonzaga University in
Spokane, Washington, serves as spiritual director, and there are also three
Norbertine priests of St. Michael’s Abbey on the teaching staff. Instruction in religion is part of the
curriculum; there is also a weekly school-wide Mass (an early morning daily
Mass, too, if students choose to participate), annual retreats, Christian service
requirements and confessions four times annually. Eric Stroupe, Vice Principal for Curriculum and Instruction,
remarked, “The primary reason parents select our school is for the moral
formation their children receive.”
Tuition and other basic fees for the school is $15,000 annually, which
makes it more expensive than other schools in the area. However, many students receive tuition
Stroupe noted that the school must constantly innovate to stay
competitive and draw students, such as through the regular introduction of
magnet programs that offer a concentrated area of study (e.g. business, the
arts). The school is always
looking for ways to update and incorporate technology into its programs, Stroupe
JSerra has had its share of controversies. It is located a mile north of historic Mission San Juan
Capistrano (legendary home of the swallows); a small group who claimed their
Indian descendants built the mission tried to stop the building of the school,
claiming it was built on ancient burial grounds. Last year, a Spanish teacher was fired for an inappropriate
relationship with a female student.
But, JSerra remains true to its mission and continues to thrive.
Stroupe commented, “JSerra has developed a solid reputation in the
community, and in these dark hours when problems arise, people look at and
appreciate JSerra as a whole.”
The Willows Academy
) in Des
Plaines, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) is an all-girls school serving 225
students grades 6-12. Although it
is an independent school it operates with the approval of archdiocesan bishop
Cardinal Francis George.
It was founded in 1974, with a two-fold purpose: 1) to offer a college
preparatory program for girls (still somewhat uncommon at the time; more girls
were just beginning to go on to college) and 2) to teach the Catholic
Faith. It has a male counterpart
in the area, Northridge Preparatory School; both have an Opus Dei
With the exception of an Opus Dei chaplain and some maintenance staff,
Willows is an all-female campus, including its 30 teachers. This environment is a strength,
believes Mary Keenley, Head of School: “It lets our girls define who they are,
not in comparison with boys.”
The cost to attend is $10,000/year at the middle school level, and
$14,000 at the high school level.
More than a third of students receive tuition assistance. Academically, the cost produces
results. Willows students outscore
their counterpart students in the surrounding public schools; on the ACT
(national college entrance examination), for example, Willows students score 27
to the public schools’ 22. Keenley
noted, “We’re one of the top 10 private schools in the State of Illinois.”
Keenley believes one of the school’s greatest strengths is its one-on-one
mentoring program. Each student is
paired with an adult mentor, often a member of the faculty, who serves as a
role model to students and helps with whatever problems they might have.
The school’s biggest challenges include keeping up enrollmentthey’re at
75% capacity nowand educating parents on how to best help their children. Keenley believes in the mission of the
school, however, and is confident they’ll continue their success. She herself is a 1981 graduate, in the
school’s second graduating class.
She said, “Our program is something I believe in intensely.”
She was disappointed to learn about the widespread school closings in the
Archdiocese of Philadelphia, commenting, “The sad thing is that once those
schools close, most of their students won’t go to other Catholic schools. And, a public school can’t care for a
student the way a parochial school can.”
The Koinonia Academy
Plainfield, New Jersey (www.koinoniaacademy.org
about 20 miles from Newark, was founded by The People of Hope
charismatic community, in 1984. It
serves 177 students, pre-K through 12th
grade. Along with academics, its focus is to
provide students with an orthodox Catholic education and formation. “Koinonia” means fellowship in the
, said Tom Appert, headmaster
Although the school is independent of the Archdiocese, it operates with
the approval of the archdiocesan bishop, John Myers. The school offers religious education classes, as well as
daily prayer. Prayers vary during
the week; twice a week they have charismatic prayer, twice a week the
rosary. On Fridays, they have
Mass. A retired priest comes daily
to hear students’ confessions; he hears about 150 per week. Most teachers are laity, although there
is one priest on the teaching staff.
The school has an edge on the neighboring public schools in test scores,
but what most pleases Appert is its students’ commitment to Christian
service. He noted that many
graduates had volunteered to work as Christian missionaries in inner city
communities in the U.S., poor countries in Central and South America, Africa
and even with Mother Teresa’s nuns in Calcutta. He recalls one student in particular who worked as a
missionary in the Muslim region of Sudan, and whom, Appert was pleased to note,
was twice asked by the government to leave.
Appert, who serves as choir director, also lauded the school’s strong
choir program. All 70 high school
students are involved with choir.
Like other Catholic schools, finances are always a concern, and the
school hopes to attract as many as 30 more students in the new school year.
Appert has taught at Koinonia since its founding in 1984, and is still a
strong believer in its mission. He
remarked, “At Koinonia we stress serving the Lord. That’s what we hope to see our graduates go on and do.”
St. Joseph Academy
in San Marcos
formerly Sierra Madre Academy, is located in the Diocese of San Diego in
California. It was founded by in
1995 two Catholic mothers with large families, Patricia Hansen and Barbara De
La Torre, with the blessing of the diocesan bishop. Twenty-five students started the first year; today, the
student body is composed of 275 students, grades K-12.
The cost to attend is about $5,000/year for elementary school students,
and $7,000 high school students.
The students are taught by 18 lay teachers. It is fully WASC-accredited and a member of the National
Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools.
The school has strong academic credentials, said Principal Michael
Dominguez, but central to its mission is “the Faith formation of our
students.” Parents can enroll
their students for up to 13 years of education with the confidence that they
will receive instruction and formation in the essential teachings of the
Catholic faith, he said.
Priests of the diocese visit regularly to offer weekly Mass, hear
confessions of students and offer spiritual direction to high school
students. Dominguez says the
Catholicity of the school’s students is best observed watching them participate
in their local parishes and community.
The school got its start in a small commercial building; in 2008, it
opened a new, 13-classroom campus which gave it the capacity to welcome as many
as 350 students. Future building
plans include a chapel, gym and additional classrooms.
St. Joseph’s advisory board includes many prominent Catholics nationwide,
including Scott Hahn of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Fr. John
McCloskey of the Faith and Reason Institute, Fr. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius
Press and Karl Keating of Catholic Answers.
Dominguez remarked, “Fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church is a
primary piece of our mission.”
Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep
in Napa, California (www.kolbetrinity.org
is located in Northern California, in the Diocese of Santa Rosa. It began as Kolbe Academy in 1980; the
parents of the current principal, Brian Muth, were co-founders. The founders wanted to create a school,
Muth said, that offered “more intensive” instruction in the Faith and smaller
class sizes. The founders also
objected to the sex education curriculum that was often taught in both the
public and many private schools, and believed such matters should be left to
parents. A group of parents left
Kolbe to found Trinity in 1995, but in 2008, the school reunited as Kolbe
Academy & Trinity Prep.
Today, the school serves 97 students, pre-K through 12th
grade. Its 11 teachers are all lay
persons; teachers have been educated at such prominent Catholic and Christian
colleges as Franciscan University in Steubenville, the University of Dallas,
Thomas Aquinas College and Hillsdale.
The school was approved by Bishop Mark Hurley of Santa Rosa at the time
of its founding; its status is currently under review by the new bishop, Robert
It is housed in a leased space, a former Baptist church built in the
1960s, that has been renovated to meet the school’s needs. The chapel, for example, has been
extensively remodeled to be a suitable place for Catholic Mass.
Principal Muth believes that one of the school’s greatest strengths is
its atmosphere. He said, “Students
know what’s acceptable and what’s not, and we openly talk about virtue and
invoke the Gospels.”
Kolbe-Trinity staff is loyal to the teaching authority of the Church; in
fact, teachers and staff take an oath of fidelity to the Magisterium and make a
profession of Faith. (Something
Bishop Vasa has himself asked his Catholic teachers to do.) The school has an active pro-life club,
and many of its families are active in sidewalk counseling in front of abortion
clinics and participate in 40 Days for Life.
The cost to attend is about $5,000/elementary, and $7,000/high school,
with substantial discounts for multiple students from the same family. Since tuition only covers about 60% of
the school’s operating costs, the school must regularly hold fundraisers and
appeal to parents for financial and volunteer support.
Muth commented, “We ask a lot of our parents. Everyone’s invested.
And, to show for it, we have good, happy kids who want to learn.”
is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org