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Catholic Schools See Enrollment Rise Closer to Pre-COVID Levels

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PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The Diocese of Brooklyn saw an enrollment increase this year thanks to “the hard work, dedication and caring of the teachers, principals, parish pastors, and leaders,” said Ted Havelka, the diocesan director of enrollment management and financial assistance.

According to Havelka, Catholic academies in Brooklyn and Queens, one of the largest dioceses in the nation in terms of Catholic school students, have an enrollment of 30,894, which includes a 2.4% increase in preschool-8th grade enrollment from 19,147 to 19,613.

Havelka attributed the success to the approach of the schools.

“It’s a lot of people doing everything they can for children and putting children’s needs above all else, and parents can see that,” Havelka said.

Beyond the Diocese of Brooklyn, Catholic school enrollment is up nationwide for the 2021-2022 school year. Catholic school enrollment this year is 1,688,417, up almost 4% from the 2020-2021 school year when enrollment was 1,626,291, according to Margaret Kaplow, the National Catholic Educational Association vice president of communications. While the enrollment jump is significant, the numbers haven’t quite reached the 2019-2020 pre-pandemic enrollment of 1,737,297, according to NCEA data.

Kaplow told The Tablet last week that the research arm of the organization is still finalizing the data for this school year, although she anticipates the final enrollment percentage increase will stay above 3.5%. The final data should be available within the next two weeks, she said.

Sister Margaret Ann is the principal of Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School in Miami, which is in an archdiocese that reported a significant jump in Catholic school enrollments this year. She recalls a moment last week when a student experiencing family hardship looked her in the eyes, and said, “Sister, I love you more than my mother. You mean more to me than my mom. You care for me more than my mom.”

“A student should never have to say that to their high school principal,” said Sister Margaret Ann. “But the fact that God has allowed us to participate in the life of at least one young man and we’ve made a difference in his life, that’s huge.”

Sister Margaret Ann shared the moment with The Tablet as part of an explainer about why she believes the school’s enrollment has jumped about 30% to 401 students from 262 students at the start of last year. The Carmelite sister says the enrollment increase is less about families switching to private education through the COVID-19 pandemic, and more so the greater focus the school placed on the formation of the child and being present to their needs.

“Our parents are looking for values-based schools where they know their students are going to be safe and cared for,” Sister Margaret Ann said. “My teachers love what they do and yes, we teach them reading, writing, arithmetic, but we really love our kids, and before school, after school, students are interacting with our faculty and staff and the students know that we really love them and care for them.”

Though not quite to the extent of Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School, the Archdiocese of Miami Catholic schools, as a whole, have seen one of the largest enrollment percentage increases in the nation this year to last. There are 27,400 students across the 58 archdiocesan Catholic schools — eight high schools and 50 elementary schools — compared to 25,928 last year, according to Jim Rigg, the superintendent of the Archdiocese of Miami Catholic schools. That’s good for an increase of about 5.4%.

Rigg attributes part of the archdiocese’s success to the luxury they have to make decisions outside of the political and bureaucratic influences that affect other school systems. Take, for example, the archdiocese’s approach to masks in the classrooms. In Florida, a state that has banned mask mandates in schools, the archdiocese has taken a more nuanced approach that the public schools can’t.

The archdiocesan schools currently require masks indoors at all times unless a family submits either proof that their child has been fully vaccinated or a consent form to opt-out of masks, Rigg said. He noted that they’re flexible to change the guidance as they see fit based on the COVID-19 situation at the time, as they have been with all protocols and guidance throughout the pandemic.

“Many of the Catholic school families that I’ve talked to, particularly those who have come to us for the first time, talk about the relative lack of drama they see in the Catholic schools,” Rigg told The Tablet. “We’re trying to be motivated by the actual needs of our students and so we’re able to make decisions that best meet our needs and I think that is appreciated by our current families.”

Sister Margaret Ann acknowledged that navigating the pandemic has been “very fatiguing” and “extremely stressful.” However, she noted that the archdiocese’s approach and the commitment from the school to keep the students in the classrooms has allowed them to thrive.

“The bottom line is that the teachers were willing to do anything they could to help the students and our parents and students have been super grateful that we’ve been able to be open most of the time,” Sister Margaret Ann said. “They wanted our students on campus and at the same time our students and parents have taken the responsibility of staying healthy so that we keep our school community healthy.”

“Because we’ve operated as our Carroll family and we’re concerned about one another we’ve had very little difficulties with COVID-19,” she continued.

Rigg also said preschool enrollment has been key to the enrollment increase in the Archdiocese of Miami. He noted, however, that seven of the eight archdiocesan high schools are at capacity, with waitlists. The only one that isn’t at capacity happens to be Archbishop Coleman Carroll.

Sister Margaret Ann said even with their huge enrollment jump they could accommodate another 200 students. She said they continue to get the word out because they want to serve as many students as possible, but overall they’re not concerned with the total number of students.

“We want to keep our class sizes small. I want my teachers to not feel overworked or overburdened that they’re trying to deal with large numbers,” Sister Margaret Ann said. “We like it small, friendly, family, and this seems to be working for our students. It’s making a difference for them and we’re here to serve and care for them.”