PROVIDENCE — As the Church celebrates another Catholic Schools Week, we are afforded an opportunity to reflect on how recent events have affected the general health of the Catholic educational system.
Amid the turbulence of the past several years, one paradoxical fact has emerged, namely that Catholic schools, in the midst of this change and uncertainty, have experienced an increase in their enrollment.
Catholic schools, like their secular and public counterparts, experienced a significant decline in their enrollment during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment nationwide decreased by 6.4%. According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), this was one of the worst declines in Catholic school enrollment in nearly 50 years.
Elementary and pre-kindergarten were hit the worst, with an 8.1% decrease in enrollment in Catholic elementary schools in 2020, and pre-K enrollment decreasing by 26.6% during the 2020-2021 school year.
Nonetheless, once the initial impact of the pandemic ended, Catholic schools experienced a substantial rebound in enrollment. The NCEA notes that between the Fall 2021 and the Fall 2022, Catholic schools have undergone a 3.8% increase in enrollment. Elementary schools experienced a 5.8% increase and pre-Kindergarten programs showed a 33.5% increase.
This rebound was contrary to what was anticipated. The NCEA expected that the decline in enrollment starting in the 2019-2020 school year would continue steadily for the next several years and did not expect a rebound to occur as quickly as it did.
Secondary schools, however, experienced a slight decrease in enrollment during the same time that many elementary schools were seeing an increase, with secondary schools undergoing a 0.4% decrease in student enrollment from the Fall of 2021 to the Fall of 2022.
Similar trends have occurred in the Diocese of Providence as well. Within the past year, there was a 2.98% increase in enrollment in Catholic primary schools.
There are multiple explanations for why this is the case.
One report by the NCEA noted that the increase in enrollment in Catholic schools is due, in part, to the student-oriented nature of many Catholic schools, claiming that many Catholic schools desired both the safety of their students and the reestablishment of normalcy in the educational process.
Catholic schools were among the first to close during the pandemic; yet, in the following school year, Catholic schools were among the first to develop a plan to deal with the effects of the pandemic and try to restore the pre-pandemic norms and procedures as much as was possible under the circumstances.
In a recent article in “Our Sunday Visitor,” some education experts noted that since Catholic schools are not government-run institutions, they were not subject to what some saw as the overly strict government regulations to the same extent that many public schools were, nor were they caught in the crosshairs of the intense political arguments surrounding these regulations. Thus, they were free to study the situation and respond as they saw fit.
In the Diocese of Providence, Sister Rayleen Giannotti, the principal of Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland, claimed that this was also true in her experience. Mercymount was among the higher performing Catholic primary schools, gaining 45 new students over the course of 2022.
“I do believe Catholic schools were able to pivot quickly and well,” Sister Rayleen said.
This was true not only with Catholic schools in general but was something exemplified by her school as well.
“Although the pandemic presented us with an unprecedented challenge, our faculty and staff remained centered on Mission and committed to our students. Sacrifices were frequently made, and individuals always worked exceptionally hard,” Sister Rayleen said.
An emphasis on making the present situation as amiable as possible for students represents a larger trend within the Catholic school system more generally.
“Catholic schools tend to be lean and nimble, as well as built on a community that is all about Mission,” Sister Rayleen continued, noting how the Catholic school system has always functioned within the context of the support of dedicated faculty and families and a strong and vibrant community.
Kevin Peloquin, the principal of the Father John V. Doyle school in Coventry, which saw its student enrollment increase by 19 students over the course of 2022, said that Catholic schools are sought for their steady course in times of uncertainty.
“I think the pandemic created a certain amount of uncertainty and chaos in our world, and now, more than ever, families are looking for stability and certainty,” Peloquin said. He noted that while each Catholic school had a slightly different approach to dealing with Covid, one thing that united all of them is the fact that they are dedicated to “seeking and instilling Truth into students,” thereby making them “places where families can find this stability and certainty.”
Like Sister Rayleen, Peloquin noted that having a strong sense of community was important for the school’s survival during the pandemic.
“Ultimately, offering a true sense of Christian community supported by the dedicated teachers and staff committed to the growth of the whole student was what led us through the pandemic,” Peloquin said.
He noted that this, along with its various attempts to keep the students safe during the height of the pandemic, and the fact that teachers attempted to maintain a sense of academic rigor even amid this uncertainty and flux, “are responsible for our continued growth in enrollment.”
David Estes, principal of The Prout School, which, with 17 new students this year, is one of two Catholic high schools to see an increase in its student enrollment in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. The other is St. Patrick Academy with seven new students this year.
After seeing a decrease in enrollment in 2020, in 2021 The Prout School saw its numbers return to what they had been immediately before the pandemic.
“I know Catholic schools in Rhode Island took very seriously the need to plan for their reopening and most began this work as early as March 2020,” Estes said.
He went on to note how Catholic schools were, in some sense, ahead of the curve in terms of determining plans to ensure the safety of their students.
“Before the state and federal government developed guidelines, our school leaders were already enmeshed in many of the issues regarding health and safety and alternative educational platforms,” something which allowed them to “adapt quickly” to the ever-changing situation, Estes said.
This was a process that not only Catholic schools in general partook in, but which Estes took part in a particular way. Not only was he involved in helping his own school adapt to the conditions brought about by Covid, he also chaired a planning subcommittee within the diocese made up of various elementary and high schools throughout the state that worked together to develop protocols that all Catholic schools would adhere to.
Estes summarized the general attitude of most Catholic schools, including his own, in the following manner: “We sought during the pandemic to maximize the student experience without compromising safety. … [W]e remained vigilant in all steps of our planning to keep the focus on providing the very best of experiences in this most unpredictable of times.”