The pandemic was hard on Catholic schools nationwide, but in Connecticut, the numbers were particularly stark. The state weathered the closure of over a dozen schools closed and a loss of hundreds of students — more than twice the nationwide rate. But local principals and superintendents say that the turnaround has given them hope: their enrollment rates post-pandemic are shooting up in a way that hasn’t happened in decades — if ever.
Overall, data from the NCEA shows that the number of students enrolled in Catholic schools across the country decreased by 2.8 percent from 2019-20 to 2021-22, the same decrease seen in the public schools. But in Connecticut, while public school enrollment decreases were about in line with the national average, Catholic school enrollment decreased more than twice that — by 6.4 percent — compared to pre-pandemic.
Kathleen Porter-Magee, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and superintendent of Partnership Schools in New York City and Cleveland, OH, told CT Examiner that Connecticut had a roughly 8 percent drop in Catholic school enrollment after the 2019-20 school year, and a 2 percent increase in enrollment from 2020-21 to 2021-22.
According to Annie Smith, co-author of the Manhattan Institute brief and Vice President of Research and Data at the National Catholic Educational Association, the largest decreases were in the Archdiocese of Hartford.
From 2019-20 to 2020-21, enrollment in the Archdiocese of Hartford dropped from 10,561 to 9,188, according to numbers provided by Smith. She said that the decrease was driven by a sharp drop in elementary school enrollment and a slight decline in secondary school enrollment. The enrollment dropped further in 2021-22, to 9,093.
Magee said that the decrease isn’t isolated to Connecticut. Catholic schools in general, she said, were hard-hit by the pandemic.
“Catholic schools saw the largest one year enrollment decrease they had seen in 50 years,” said Magee.
Magee attributes this to a combination of factors. One is the schools’ reliance on tuition — when the pandemic shut everything down, public schools continued to receive funding from the state and federal governments. But Magee said that Catholic schools were unable to collect tuition, or decided not to in order to lift the burden on families that were struggling economically. For schools that were already on the edge financially, it meant having to shut down permanently.
According to NCEA data, fourteen Catholic schools either closed or merged across Connecticut between the years 2019-20 and 2021-22, nine of which were in the Archdiocese of Hartford.
But Smith said there’s reason to be hopeful — thanks to the post-pandemic enrollment spike, Catholic school enrollment nationwide is nearly 40,000 students higher than pre-pandemic projections initially estimated.
“I think that our schools were innovative and they welcomed families. They weren’t just academic[ally] supporting the families and the students, but they provided, sometimes, food. They provided mental health, social health. They were very comprehensive in their education throughout this pandemic in welcoming both the family and the students,” said Smith. “I think one of the worst parts about Catholic schools is we’re always … like, ‘the best kept secret’ — and I’m hoping the pandemic means that we’re no longer a secret.”
“These kids needed to be in school”
Valerie Mara, superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Hartford, also gave an optimistic picture. Mara told CT Examiner that the diocese had seen a 17 percent increase in the numbers in their high school freshman class over the last two years, and that they were looking at a projected increase of 6 percent in their elementary schools from last school year to the coming year.
Mara did say that she remembered a drop in Pre-K in the year after the pandemic hit, but said that the drop had rebounded since. While secondary school numbers continued to drop last year, the diocese saw an increase of about 130 students in its elementary school classes. She said this year a new preschool, St. Bartholomew’s, will be opening in Manchester.
Smith told CT Examiner that the organization collects the numbers as of September 15, which means that if the schools were seeing a large number of students enroll later in the year, those students may not be reflected in their data.
Individual schools also said they were seeing an increase in their student enrollment. Alissa DeJonge, head of Mercy High School in Middletown, said that the school will be enrolling 50 more students this coming September compared to two years ago — nearly a 20 percent increase, she said. (DeJonge, who arrived at the school in the fall of 2020, said she did not know if there was a decline during the first year of the pandemic).
This is also true of certain elementary schools. Tiffany Ruvolo, principal at St. John Paul II Elementary School in Middletown, said the school’s enrollment didn’t see any pandemic-related declines after the 2019-20 school year, but that enrollment still increased last year — from 179 students to 195 students. This coming year, Ruvolo said, the school has already enrolled 205 students as of the end of June — the largest enrollment that the decade-old school has ever had.
“It’s to the point now that families are realizing that they really need to get their children in early if they want a slot in the middle school, because our middle school will fill up fast,” said Ruvolo.
Ruvolo said the majority of their new students were coming in from the public schools.
Most of the school principals and diocese officials who spoke with CT Examiner said that they attributed the increased enrollment to the fact that Catholic schools largely remained open for in-person instruction during the pandemic.
“All of the mitigation strategies were in place, but I can tell you … these kids needed to be in school,” said Mara. “So many of our families have two working parents, and it compromised their employment and livelihood by not having anybody at home to watch the kids. It was the wellness of the student and the family.”
Catholic school officials said that even families who originally planned to enroll their children just for the year, until their former schools reopened full-time, ended up staying. Ruvolo said she believed the families stayed because the environment was “very structured.” She also said that parents were happy that the students were using textbooks in the classrooms and not electronic devices.
“They were just so glad to hear that,” she said.
Some superintendents and principals said they believed the families’ decisions to stay had to do with the quality of instruction at the Catholic Schools.
Steven Cheeseman, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Bridgeport, told CT Examiner that the schools in the Bridgeport diocese had created a personalized learning system where students take an assessment created by a computer program that responds to each individual student’s level of achievement and helps teachers address specific challenges that each child has.
Cheeseman said that in the diocese of Bridgeport, which serves about 7,500 students across 28 schools, enrollment had been decreasing at a rate of about _ percent per year. During the pandemic, he said, their numbers flatlined, but in the year immediately after, they saw a 10 percent jump in admissions.
Mara said that the Catholic schools partner with parents in educating children, and that many of the values they teach mirror the values of the families.
“We never subscribe to common core. We always ensure we don’t subscribe to critical race theory. Rather, we have an environment where we don’t cancel anybody. We value every student, and celebrate the dignity and respect the dignity of every student. And we ensure that truth is what grounds our in our curriculum,” said Mara.
Cheeseman said that from conversations he’s had with parents, the concern is less about what is being taught and more about the tone with which discussions are taking place.
“It’s not even whether they agree or disagree with what’s being said, it’s the vitriol and the manner in which the conversation is happening,” said Cheeseman. “[Parents] say … there’s too much negativity and too much fighting and … schools [have] become too political. And they’ve come to us as sort of a safe haven to escape that.”
DeJonge said she believes the environment and the community is what has encouraged families to remain at Mercy. She said she believed the school’s history stemming back to the Sisters of Mercy, which encourages giving back to the community, has become an even more important ethos recently in society. She also said she felt that their being an all-girls school drew families in.
“I think that’s something that really resonates with people right now – being able to offer that kind of community support, and for young women to see themselves as leaders and to be supported in anything they want to do,” said DeJonge. “We’re at a moment in our society, in our history where having that encouragement as a young woman is really important.”
Cheeseman said that he sees the pandemic as having provided an opportunity to draw in more students. He said that he believes most of the decline in Catholic school enrollment over the years has been driven by finances.
“It’s not cheap to send your child to a Catholic school or any private school. And so I think that makes parents sometimes think twice,” he said. “I think the pandemic has given people an opportunity to look at us. I think if we do a good job on our end of continuing to make sure that the product is one that’s quality and that focuses on student success, I think that we can use this as a springboard moving forward.”
But the financial burden has become more serious for some families, first with job losses during the pandemic and then rising prices for food, gasoline and rent across the country. DeJonge said that the need for tuition assistance has visibly increased — she said that about half their students receive financial aid.
“Because of COVID, some families were either underemployed or may have lost their jobs,” said DeJonge. “[Financial need] is always increasing, but we’ve seen it increase pretty significantly over the past couple of years.”
Mercy has relied on help from alumni to fill the gap; schools in the diocese of Bridgeport give scholarships and financial aid as well. Ruvolo said that John Paul II has limited the amount it has increased its tuition to $100 over the past two years. She said that while she understood that many of their families were hard-hit, the school also needed to be able to pay its teachers, who already make less than they would at a public school.
Mara described the impact of inflation in the last year as “awful” for families who are trying to pay tuition. She said the archbishop has increased the amount of money the archdiocese gives in support to the schools, and that she was seeking out grants and other sources of funding as well.
“People need that, now more than ever, to know that this is a place where they belong, that they feel like they’re part of a community and they’re supported. And if they go through difficult times, they’re not going to just be pushed away. We’re going to work with them as much as we can,” she said.
Magee said that the financial challenges are particularly strong in states like Connecticut, where no school choice voucher programs exist. But she said that she’s also very hopeful — the quick rebound in Catholic school enrollment across the nation has, she believes, opened a window for these schools to enter back into the public consciousness.
“I think that Catholic schools … demonstrated an ability to adjust and serve communities in the way that no other system was able to during the crisis,” said Magee. “And I think parents have responded and are more interested in exercising choice and more interested in Catholic schools than they’ve been maybe in a generation.”
This story has been updated