The organization overseeing Catholic schools in the United States has a new chief executive this week as it seeks to bounce back from its biggest drop in enrollment in a year since the 1970s.
Amid the pandemic, more than 200 schools have closed permanently and enrollments in the remaining 5,981 schools have fallen 6.4% – or more than 111,000 students – for the 2020-2021 school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
The total number of registrations was around 1.63 million, up from a peak of over 5.2 million in the early 1960s.
On Wednesday, the NCEA installs a new president and CEO, Lincoln Snyder, who served as superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., Since 2015. Based on trends in that diocese, where enrollment is up 3% from September 2019, Snyder is cautiously optimistic that many Catholic schools nationwide may slow or stop the decline in enrollment in the coming year.
Economic hardship caused by the pandemic forced some families to withdraw their children from Catholic schools because they could not afford school fees, Snyder said. But in Sacramento, he said, those losses were offset by an influx of new families into Catholic schools who were drawn to the educational strengths of the system and its handling of the pandemic.
“We have had low infection rates… very few documented cases (of COVID-19) on site,” he said. “We have shown that it is safe to have children in class – and that seems to have been respected by parents. “
Of the 209 Catholic schools that closed or were consolidated last year, the greatest impact was felt by urban communities and non-Catholic families, the NCEA said. In his latest annual report, he expressed regret, saying that closing Catholic schools in underserved areas eliminates “avenues of opportunity” for affected families.
To reduce these closings, the NCEA will need the help of philanthropic donors, Snyder said.
Among the major city dioceses, Las Vegas is the only one where Catholic school enrollment increased by more than 2% last year, the NCEA said.
Conversely, enrollment in Catholic schools fell by more than 8% in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The overall decline in enrollment was 8.1% in the 4,812 Catholic elementary schools and 2.5% in the 1,169 secondary schools.
The reduction in school staff – including teachers and administrators – was relatively modest at 2.3%, in part due to the availability of the federal paycheck protection program in spring 2020.
Snyder said the NCEA won’t know until September whether Catholic schools have collectively been able to stop the enrollment decline.
“I believe it is possible,” he said. “I am optimistic that with the right resources and the right people, Catholic schools can thrive.”