Thriving Catholic Schools

Catholic schools have been in decline for fifty years, but there are signs of hope.

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 ago.
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 closed.
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 rates 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 assistance.
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 added.
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 spirituality. 
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 enrollment—they’re at 75% capacity now—and 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 in Plainfield, New Jersey (, about 20 miles from Newark, was founded by The People of Hope, a 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 Holy Spirit, said Tom Appert, headmaster and teacher.
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 (, 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 Vasa.
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.”

Jim Graves
is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.  Email him at

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About Jim Graves 217 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.