On Thursday, February 24, Larry White received an email in his principal’s office at St. Bernardine Catholic School.
The communication was a “heads’ up” from the Archdiocese of Chicago informing all Catholic principals that, at a news conference that evening, the Archdiocese would be announcing the closing of twenty-three schools later this year.
“This is not a recent development,” Principal White related. “Each year the Archdiocese closes a few schools. What is new is that the trend has accelerated.”
White listed two simple reasons for Catholic schools being closed.
First, expenses have gone up.
“When I was a boy going to Catholic schools on the South Side of Chicago,” he remembered, “most of my teachers were nuns.”
Because the sisters had taken vows of poverty and lived in religiouscommunities that took care of their needs thus, salaries and benefits were very low for Catholic parochial schools.
But beginning in the late sixties and seventies, there was a mass exodus of nuns from religious life.
The result, of course, was that schools like St. Bernardine had to pay higher salaries and benefits for the lay teachers they hired to replace the nuns.
Second, income has gone down.
Largely due to demographic changes, income in many parishes has gone down.
When Catholic Parishes were established years ago, they were created to serve the Roman Catholic population concentrated in a particular neighborhood. But when the original ethnic group moved out of the neighborhood and a new group, which is not traditionally Catholic moved in, Sunday mass attendance declined along with the subsidies
for the schools that came from
“We can’t raise tuition so high that we push potential students away,” White explained. “That’s why I have to wear many different hats.”
One hat, of course, is that of a school administrator.
But the hat of a fundraiser is another that White has to wear with increasing frequency.
In addition to fundraising, parochial schools make ends meet in part by having a dedicated staff willing to work for less than their counterparts in public education.
The result is that students at St. Bernardine paid an average of $2,715 to attend school for an entire year with a cost per pupil totaling $4,697.
That’s compared to $8,500 per child in District 91.
White acknowledged that finances are not the only factors driving the decline in enrollment in Catholic schools.
“Some families have left because of the recent scandals,” he admitted, “while other Catholic families have begun to chose sending their children to our CCD programs after school, as a means of religious formation instead of having them enrolled in the parish school.”
Is St. Bernardine in danger of being closed by the Archdiocese?
“No,” White replied, “but if we don’t reverse some of the trends like a gradual decline in enrollment,
financial challenges, and deferred building maintenance, we too could be at risk some day.”
Enrollment at St. Bernardine, which presently totals 192, has declined by five to six percent annually for the past five years.
He added that there are still strong motivations for parents to send their children to parochial schools like St. Bernardine.
“Faith formation is still a primary reason Catholic parents send their children to parochial schools,” he said. “Some other motivations include our competitive academic program, the way we encourage self-discipline and self-respect, and history, i.e. some parents want the same kind of educational experience for their children that they had.”
Principal White emphasized that Catholic education is not on the way out.
He pointed to new schools being built in Waukegan and the Palos area. He said that one way the Archdiocese is responding to decreasing enrollments is through restructuring. For example, two Catholic churches which previously ran their own schools, might share a building as partners and then send their students to a regional middle school.
Larry White is hopeful about Catholic education in general. He also feels good about St. Bernardine’s future.
“We think we do a good job here,” White declared, “because of what we give each student and what we provide for the community. Part of our challenge is
that some people don’t know we are here. We have to do a better job of making our school known.”