In the aftermath of the closing of 48 schools in the
Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and in light of the dramatic decline in Catholic
school enrollment in the United States over the past half century, in January CWR
five Catholic schools
that were thriving despite a troubled economy,
smaller family sizes, and a secular culture increasing hostile to traditional
religion. The following is a continuation of that series, highlighting five other
thriving Catholic schools. CWR spoke to the schools’ teachers and
administrators, who shared their insights into how their schools have been
successful during this difficult period in Catholic education.
Marin Catholic High
in Kentfield, California is one of four high schools of the Archdiocese of San
Francisco. It is nearly at full
capacity, serving 720 students grades 9-12. Its 70 teachers include three
Dominican Sisters of Mother Mary of the Eucharist, a flourishing order based
out of Ann Arbor, Michigan whose sisters wear the traditional full habit.
Tim Navone, the president of the school, remarked, “[The
Dominican sisters] are impacting our community in a huge way. We’re planning on
having more join the faculty next year.”
Marin Catholic also recently welcomed Msgr. Robert Sheeran,
who is serving as a chaplain; Msgr. Sheeran was previously president of Seton
Hall University in New Jersey.
The cost per year to attend tops $16,000, although 29
percent of the student body currently receives tuition assistance. The school
is on a solid financial footing despite receiving no funding from the archdiocese,
but is always in search of donors to help students with financial aid.
The 13.7-acre campus is located in an attractive Northern
California setting, at the foot of the mountains. Special features include the beautiful St.
Francis Chapel, built in 2003, in which students, staff, and friends of the
school attend Mass on weekdays at 7:30 am.
Marin Catholic outscores neighboring public high schools
academically, and boasts small class sizes of 21 students (nearby public
schools have up to 35 per class). Many students go on to top colleges.
The school was founded in 1949, and has fought to maintain
its Catholic identity, despite its close proximity to secular San Francisco. Two
of its former presidents have become bishops; Navone is the first layman to
assume the role.
Marin Catholic has a seminar program called “Substantially
Catholic,” which gives its teachers tools to weave Catholic thought into the
classroom, regardless of subject. The school also has an annual Lourdes trip,
in which students travel to the famous apparition site in France and spend 10
days serving as volunteers assisting pilgrims. Marin Catholic has had many of
its students pursue religious vocations, Navone said, which is often “a fruit
of the Lourdes trip.” Navone added that “there is a thirst for prayer at Marin
Catholic that did not exist 10 years ago.”
St. Michael the
Archangel Academy (www.smacademy.com),
an Irvine, California-based homeschooling organization, is celebrating the 20th
anniversary of its founding this year. It serves 116 children grades K-12. Most
students live in Southern California, but some live as far away as Italy and
Marcia Neill serves as director of SMAA; she founded it to educate
her own four children. “I wanted my children to have a traditional Catholic
education but we could no longer afford to put them in Catholic schools,” she
The idea of homeschooling came to her while she was praying
a novena, Neill said. Although she had a background as a nurse, she was able to
develop a curriculum uniquely suited to each of her children. She quickly took
to homeschooling. “I liked that I was in charge,” she said. “I was also better
connected to what my children were studying.”
Her children are grown nowthree are married (to other
former homeschoolers) and one is nunbut Neill continues to operate the SMAA,
together with the school’s Board of Directors. The school has not been formally
approved by the Diocese of Orange, in which it is located; however, priests
working in the diocese assist the school.
The average family size at SMAA is 4.2 children per family,
says Neill, and there is usually only one wage-earner per household. The
children in the program generally outscore their counterparts in public and
Catholic schools in academics, and tend to remain active in the Church after
graduation. A key to the school’s success, Neill added, is that “both the kids
and the parents are committed to the program.”
The cost of the program is $1,500/year, for which parents
receive a curriculum tailored to the learning styles of their children. This particularly
benefits children who with significant disabilities, such as autism. Although
children do much of their learning at home, they do gather for special classes
and events, including school dances and field trips. Families are also encouraged
to be active in their parishes.
SMAA is loyal to Church teaching; in fact, board members
are required to take an oath of fidelity to the Magisterium.
Neill has met critics of homeschooling over the past two
decades, including parish priests, but is gratified to have won at least some
over. “They see the end productour kidsand they are convinced,” she said.
While many schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are
closing, others are doing well with strong enrollment. Among these is Our Lady of Good Counsel School in
Southampton, a suburb of Philadelphia. The parish school serves 413 students in
grades pre-K through 8th; enrollment costs about $3,225 annually per student. The
actual cost to educate a student there is about $1,000 more; the remainder is
made up through parish subsidies and fundraisers.
Principal Frank Mokriski has worked in Catholic education
in the Philadelphia archdiocese for 37 years, 17 of them as principal of Our
Lady of Good Counsel. He said, “Teaching kids the Faith is an important
dimension of our mission; we also have a great community spirit and connection
to the parish.”
He also noted that the school’s children consistently score
above national averages in academics.
The Philadelphia school closings are not the dire news that
the national media suggests, he believes, but the reality of changing
demographics in the inner city. Many Catholic educators in the archdiocese
anticipated the closings. “Younger families with children are shifting to the
suburbs, and many who remain are older with grown children, non-Catholic or
Catholic but not practicing,” he explained.
Mokriski also observed that the mindset of many Catholic
parents has changed since he began teaching in the archdiocese 37 years ago. “It
used to be that if you were Catholic you’d send your children to Catholic
schools; that’s no longer true today,” he said.
He’s also observed that some parents in the parish schools
are poorly catechized, and have little understanding of Church teaching and the
importance of the sacramental life. It’s been the challenge of parish priests
to improve that, he said.
Our Lady of Good Counsel continues to do well, Mokriski
said, because of its close relationship with the parish and the cohesiveness of
the school staff and parents. “We work as a team, and in close partnership with
parents,” he said. “It’s central to our ongoing success.”
One of the greatest challenges for Catholic families who
want a Catholic education for their children is the cost of tuition. With an
annual tab of between $3,000 and $7,000 per year per child at the elementary
level, and more than twice that for a Catholic high school, many cannot afford
a Catholic education, even with tuition assistance. In the Diocese of Lincoln,
Nebraska, however, parish schools have tuitions that are nominal; hence, just
about any parent who wants to send his child to a Catholic school can afford to
At St. Theresa
Catholic School in Lincoln, for example, annual tuition is $100 per
student, with price breaks for families with multiple children. St. Theresa has
305 students, grades pre-K through 8th. Sr. Mary Cecilia, the school’s principal,
said, “Our parish stresses stewardship, and the education of our children in the
Faith is a priority. Many of our older parishioners who do not have minor
children have done much to support us.”
Sr. Mary Cecilia estimated that of the parish’s $1.2
million budget, $900,000 is devoted to Catholic education. The funds not only
support the elementary school, but students going on to the local Catholic high
school as well.
St. Theresa is staffed by 20 teachers; the principal and
two of the teachers are School Sisters of Christ the King. The sisters are a
diocesan community founded in 1976; their community of 29 works in seven of the
diocese’s 40 schools.
St. Theresa was founded in the 1930s; its first teachers
were Dominican sisters. Msgr. Joseph Nemec has served as the parish’s pastor since
1993, and has not raised tuition at the parish school since arriving. The diocese
is led by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, well-known for his orthodoxy, who tells the
staff members of his Catholic schools that Catholic education is more than just
academics, but teaching students the Catholic faith, says Sister Mary Cecilia.
She believes St. Theresa has been successful due to its
“strong Catholic spirit, fidelity to the teachings of the Church, and dedicated
faculty.” Keeping the school Catholic is always a challenge, she said, as is
keeping up-to-date on the latest educational trends“sorting out which ones are
helpful and which are fads.”
St. Michael’s Abbey
Preparatory School (www.stmichaelsprep.org)
in Silverado, California is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is a
Catholic boarding school for boys grades 9-12. It serves a maximum of 64 boys;
about half of their teachers are Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey. The school’s
annual cost is $20,000. Boys typically live at the Abbey five days per week,
and go home to their families on weekends. The school’s courses are accredited,
and it has approval from the diocesan bishop.
Father Gabriel Stack, headmaster, remarked, “We attract
families seeking a very Catholic environment, a customized college preparatory
education, wholesome male role models (in our Norbertine Fathers), and a boarding
Many boys are familiarized with the school through the
Abbey’s summer program, which is for boys ages 7-12.
St. Michael’s Abbey was founded in 1961. Its first members
were priests from Hungary escaping from communism who made their way to Southern
California. The boarding school was initially founded as a minor seminary and
later became a college preparatory program. Some graduates of St. Michael’s
return to become members of the Norbertine community.
The size of the school is limited by the facilities
available on the 34-acre hillside Abbey site. The Abbey is looking to re-locate
to a larger property in the future, which will enable the prep school to
at St. Michael’s participate in the spiritual life of the Abbey. They go to
daily Mass, do an evening Holy Hour and regularly go to confession. Do they remain
active in the Faith? Father Gabriel believes many do: “The best evidence I have
is that when our alumni return, I see them at Holy Hours or in line for