NEPONSIT — New York City public schools are seeing a precipitous drop in enrollment as parents — turned off by academic shortcomings, safety concerns and an emerging emphasis on “wokeness” — are voting with their feet.
One option parents are choosing is Catholic school.
Maria Argiro, who lives in Neponsit, had both of her daughters, Nicole and Giuliana, attend a local public school near their home until fifth grade. Then she enrolled each girl in Genesis, the middle school at Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge. Nicole is now a Xaverian freshman and Giuliana is a Genesis seventh grader. Argiro has no regrets about taking her children out of the public school system.
“We wanted more rigorous academics and a better choice of extracurricular activities. But a big push for me was school security,” she explained. “I need to know that my daughters are safe in school.”
Kim Piccininno took her daughter Bella Mia out of their local public school in Bensonhurst and enrolled her in St. Peter Catholic Academy in September, 2020 when Bella Mia was a second grader.
Her decision arose partly out of her frustration with the remote learning model public schools implemented during the pandemic. But mostly, she was concerned that her daughter was getting lost in the shuffle.
“My daughter is dyslexic and the public school never picked up on it, never had her tested or anything. They told me she was doing great,” Piccininno recalled.
Once Bella Mia enrolled in St. Peter’s, “her teacher in second grade was phenomenal. She caught right away that there was an issue,” Piccininno said. She had her daughter evaluated and she learned of the dyslexia diagnosis. Bella Mia, now a fifth grader, is thriving in school, her proud mother said.
The unhappiness that parents feel with the public school system is more than anecdotal. There are solid numbers behind it.
Figures from the New York City Department of Education show that the public school system lost approximately 50,000 students between 2019 and 2021. And kindergarten registration is down 17% between 2016 and 2022.
According to figures from the New York State Department of Education, enrollment in New York City schools for the 2022-2023 school year was 10% lower from a decade ago.
Meanwhile, more than 900 new students in grades 1-8 have enrolled in schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn for 2023-2024 school year, and those numbers are expected to rise during the month of September, officials said. Kindergarten enrollment is 2.2% higher than last year.
“We’re always here and I think what people are realizing is that they have a choice,” said Deacon Kevin McCormack, diocesan superintendent of schools. “They’re also beginning to realize that free isn’t always wonderful.”
Timothy Dillon, principal of Good Shepherd Catholic Academy in Marine Park, estimated that 40 new students have enrolled in the school for this new school year. The parents of half of those students have expressed disgust with the public school system, he said.
Principals are hearing a variety of reasons from parents on why they abandoned the public school system in favor of Catholic schools.
“We noticed some of those parents wanted more rigorous academics — going really back to the basics with writing, arithmetic, and science,” said Michael Phillips, principal of St. Ephrem Catholic Academy in Bay Ridge.
Phillips is a former public school parent himself. Even before he became principal, he enrolled his daughter in first grade at St. Ephrem after she had attended kindergarten at a public school in downtown Brooklyn.
“We just didn’t feel she was getting the right support that she needed. And we weren’t pleased with the communication we were getting from the teacher,” he explained.
Dillon also said parents have expressed concern to him about the idea of teaching “wokeness” — awareness of such social problems as racism and inequality — to young children. “I’ve heard that from a few people. And they don’t necessarily think that “woke” is bad. But it’s being implemented so rapidly that it’s become somewhat disorganized and confusing,” he said.
Argiro said she too was “unhappy with the changes in the curriculum,” that placed additional emphasis on “woke” topics, LGBTQ issues, and sexuality, adding, “I feel it’s up to me to talk to my daughters about these issues.”
For Alison Coyle of Maspeth, it was the pandemic that turned her into a Catholic school parent. Her son Raymond was a third grader at a public school in March of 2020 when the school buildings were closed and reverted to a remote learning model.
Coyle and her husband Raymond worried young Raymond, who has special needs, would have struggled academically working on a computer screen. The couple was impressed by the swiftness with which schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn were fully reopened. It was a sign, the Coyles believed, that Catholic schools were better able than public schools to adapt to changing circumstances and put the needs of children first.
The couple decided to enroll Raymond in St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Academy in September, 2020. “He’s made tremendous gains since he’s been in Catholic school in a smaller environment. He’s thriving,” Coyle explained. Ramond is now a seventh grader. His mother has also seen his self-esteem improve through his participation in extracurricular activities like the school safety patrol and the drama club.
St. Stanislaus Kostka has become a family affair for the Coyles. Raymond’s younger brother Richard is a second grader and little sister Adeline, is in the 3-K program housed there.
Deacon McCormack said he thinks bureaucracy and red tape in public schools turns off parents and teachers.
The bottom line is that Catholic schools offer something public schools cannot — namely, faith — Deacon McCormack said.
“Catholic school has a set of values that is not up for grabs. There are certain things that we stand for that are not negotiable,” he explained.