The nearly century old St. Bernardine School is facing a serious drop in enrollment that has led to some concern about the school’s future.
The school, which lists its current enrollment at 153, lost 37 students this year. According to principal Larry White, the school has been losing just under 10 students per year for quite some time, but this year’s drop is especially concerning.
“It was definitely a more significant drop than in years previous. To a great degree, a lot of it has to do with economics. From our surveys of our own people, they’re very satisfied with the quality of the education. More than anything, it’s an economic issue. Plus we’ve had quite a few people move as well,” said White.
Tuition at St. Bernardine, 815 Elgin Ave., is currently $3,030 for parishioners and $3,900 for non-members. According to White, though tuition typically increases 3.5 to 4 percent each year, the school still takes a significant loss on each student. He estimated that the school spends about $6,000 per year to educate each of its students.
The remainder of the funds used to operate the school comes from the St. Bernardine parish and fundraisers held throughout the year. Still, with the parish losing members each year as well, most agree that current levels of assistance cannot be maintained for long.
According to a notice recently sent to St. Bernardine parents and parishioners, the parish’s current assistance to the school is $236,000 annually. In the past, assistance has normally ranged from $50,000 to $130,000 per year. Projections anticipate that the parish will close the fiscal year with a debt of about $150,000.
Low enrollment is of particular concern in the lower grade levels, according to White. The school currently has 4 students in its 3-year-old program, which White said is normal, but only 8 in its 4-year-old program, which typically draws about 15 students.
The school’s first grade class has 12 students this year, compared to a typical class of 15 to 20.
The dwindling student body has caused many to speculate that the school may eventually be forced to close its doors, either by the archdiocese or by its own increasing deficit.
According to Kevin Keating, chairman of St. Bernardine’s finance committee, this concern has caused several students to leave before middle school as parents choose not to risk their children having to switch schools for eighth grade in the event that the school closes.
White said the school is making efforts to dispel any perception that current students are aboard a sinking ship. “It could be a perception, but it’s a misperception,” he said. “We encourage people to come talk to us and come visit us and learn about us.”
According to Keating, the school recently received a letter from the archdiocese encouraging it to remain open next year. “Our destiny is in our hands,” said Keating. “But that’s not to say we’re out of the water ourselves.”
Though many Catholic schools in the Chicago area have been closed by the archdiocese in recent years, including over 20 that were asked to close in early 2005, Keating said that St. Bernardine has not drawn in many students from these other schools. “Disappointingly, when a Catholic school closes the kids usually don’t go to another one…they stay local,” he said.
“(The possibility of closing) is a concern that has been voiced and we’re dealing with it,” said White. “Certainly we can’t experience that kind of drop for another year ” we recognize that we have had that decrease and we are marketing ourselves and aggressively seeking to increase enrollment.”
The fundraising efforts have included appeals to parish members, events including dances and candy sales, as well as increased advertising and marketing efforts. The school has also appealed to its newly formed alumni association for contributions.
Keating noted that, in addition to financial damage, low enrollment takes a toll on the diversity of the school’s student body. “You need decent enrollment to stay a decent school. You need a mix of different kids with different personalities to be a viable school.”
Up to this point, the school, which employs 28 people, has not had to make any cutbacks in staff, but White acknowledged that this might have to occur if enrollment does not pick up.
Still, White is cautiously optimistic about the school’s future. The school, he said, has begun surveying parents of current students to determine whether they intend to return next year, and the signs have been mostly positive. White also said that the school has received several inquiries from families of potential future students.
“We’re anticipating a minimal decrease or optimistically even a raise (in enrollment) next year,” said White.
“Right now, all of our planning efforts are on keeping the school open, and the key is enrollment,” said Keating.
Meanwhile, St. John Lutheran School, 305 Circle Ave., has also experienced a significant drop in enrollment.
Principal Linda Johnson said that the dip is mostly attributable to increased tuition costs and increased mobility among area families. “Our actual tuition charge is way short of what it’s costing us to educate the kids, but even at that subsidized rate it’s hard to afford it,” she said. “This year there was more of an increase (in tuition) because congregations are feeling the money crunch also.”
Increased competition, especially at the lower grade levels, is also partially to blame, according to Johnson. “We used to be one of the few all day kindergarten programs. My daughter is 21, and when she was in kindergarten we had a morning kindergarten of 18 kids and an afternoon kindergarten of 18 kids. Now we can only have one classroom of 18-20 kids. So now, feeding into first grade, instead of 36 kids we now have a much smaller pool.”