Friday, January 27, 2017

Catholic Church reacts to declining enrollment in elementary schools

Image result for bridgeport dioceseThe Bridgeport Diocese’s 16-month study of under-enrolled and financially struggling Catholic elementary schools is expected to bring changes in as little as two weeks. 
In Danbury and neighboring Brookfield, the solution is probably not to shut schools, but to change the way they are managed and to invest in them, Bridgeport Bishop Frank Caggiano said last week.

“Some of these demographic and financial challenges transcend the ability of one school to overcome them, so a number of these schools have to look to work together,” the bishop said. 

Caggiano could decide as soon as February what to do about diocesan schools here and in two other regions of Fairfield County - Stamford and the Shelton-Monroe area.

The changes could include consolidating schools into a single academy, perhaps with multiple campuses, following successful models in Greenwich, Norwalk and Bridgeport.

Catholic elementary school enrollment in Fairfield County has dropped from 7,770 students in 2009 to 6,400 students today.

The declining enrollment is a function of competition from public schools, the cost of Catholic school tuition, and a decrease in young families participating in parish life —and it’s taking its toll on diocesan finances. 

It has cost the diocese $21 million to cover school budget deficits since it took over the management of parochial schools in 2000.

But the diocese has more in mind than saving money.

“However we reshuffle the cards, we are still planning on educating the same number of students,” said diocese spokesman Brian Wallace. “And the systems and resources we put in place will put us in a position to grow.”

The possibility that some Fairfield County Catholic schools might close or consolidate is causing anxiety in some parishes.

“Registration is way down - you can’t deny that,” said Fred Visconti, the chairman of the Parish Council at Saint Peter Church in downtown Danbury and a member of the City Council. “But we would hope that any major decision about the school would be done by the parish itself.”

The bishop responded that everyone involved in studying solutions is on the same side.

“Catholic education needs to be preserved and needs to have the resources to innovate in a changing world,” Caggiano said. “My goal is to get back to full enrollment in all our schools. We have about 3,000 empty seats.”

The diocese has 9,000 students and 1,000 faculty in 31 schools from Bethel to Wilton. But it’s the 25 elementary schools that have been under review.

Danbury and Brookfield together have a total of 890 students in four Catholic elementary schools, all of which are losing money, the diocese said. The average tuition of $6,400 doesn’t cover the $7,300 that it costs to educate each child. 

Even so, the diocese’s per-pupil spending is considerably lower than the $12,700 Danbury public schools spend per student, and the $15,400 state average for public schools.

The diocese’s five high schools, on the other hand, give reason for hope, Caggiano said. 

Catholic high school enrollment in Fairfield County is up by 75 students since 2009.

Danbury’s Immaculate High School, for example, has seen a 24 percent jump in enrollment in the last four years, to 470 students. The school expects to enroll 500 students in the fall.

“The high schools are doing their own strategic planning - and Immaculate is going through a renaissance, which is wonderful,” Caggiano said. “What the high schools are doing, I want to do on the elementary level.” 

The bishop plans to speak with parents during a Jan. 30 meeting in Danbury before making his final decision. 

“In Danbury, I don’t anticipate significant change, but schools still have issues to deal with,” Caggiano said. “In other regions, there may be more significant change.”

In Stamford, for example, the bishop is weighing a proposal that would create one elementary school out of four schools with a combined enrollment of less than 600. 

The future

The challenges facing Catholic schools come at a time of increasing budgetary and demographic pressure on public schools. 

Many of Western Connecticut’s public school districts are feeling the effects of decreasing enrollment, and the billion-dollar fiscal crisis in Hartford means less state aid is coming their way.

Cities such as Danbury are the exception to the decreasing enrollment trend, with annual enrollment growth as high as 2.5 percent in some of its public elementary schools.

But steady population growth in Danbury is not translating into parochial school enrollment, the diocese said.

Enrollment numbers at the four Catholic elementary schools being studied in Danbury are:

Saint Gregory the Great School - 209 

Saint Joseph School - 255 

Saint Peter’s School - 249

Saint Joseph School (Brookfield) - 177

Catholic elementary schools are struggling not only because of competition from quality public schools and the diminished numbers of young adults with active faith lives in Fairfield County. 

The model that many Catholic schools were founded on, when they were built by immigrants and staffed by nuns, is outdated, the diocese said. 

Today’s Catholic schools are staffed by lay teachers with master’s degrees, and can no longer afford to charge parents a nominal tuition. 

In response, the diocese has set up working groups in Danbury, Shelton and Stamford to study ways to stabilize and even increase enrollment.

A Danbury parent with three children in Catholic school said she trusts the diocese to do the right thing.

“I do feel that the bishop is going to do what is best for us, and that his desire is for all children who want to have a Catholic education to have one,” said Kate Gibowitz, a homeroom parent coordinator at Saint Joseph School in Danbury. “(I)t absolutely starts with the parents to instill a sense of faith in children, but I do like the fact that the reinforcement comes on a daily basis in a Catholic school environment.”

Once the bishop makes his decision about the shape Catholic schools will take in Danbury, Shelton and Stamford, parents can expect to hear more about an investment initiative launched by Caggiano called the Education Foundation. 

The foundation’s purpose is to enhance the diocesan scholarship fund, to establish a professional development program for teachers and to update technology and curriculum in classrooms.

“This is what it means to be good stewards of the faith,” Caggiano said. “There is a financial piece to it of course, but we also need to engage in strategic planning so that we can be faithful to our mission and meet the changing needs of our world.”

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