OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) — A nearly 2 percent increase in enrollment at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha has ended a 17-year slide.
The 19,277 students in the archdiocese’s 70 elementary and high schools this year compares with 18,911 last year, a gain of 366 students, or 1.94 percent, said Patrick Slattery, superintendent of schools. That marks the first gain since 1998.
The long-term enrollment trend, including a national 60 percent decline since 1965 in enrollment in Catholic schools — and briefly interrupted in the archdiocese in the late 1980s and from 1992 to 1998 — can be attributed to many factors, Slattery told the Catholic Voice, Omaha’s archdiocesan newspaper. Rural communities have become smaller, parents are having fewer children, and people’s ties to Catholicism and other religions have begun to fray, he said.
Slattery said this year’s increase also is driven by many factors, and school officials will seek to better understand why, studying data and asking new families why they chose a Catholic school. Reasons could vary, including an improving economy, he said.
But the archdiocese’s deliberate steps over the last three years to market and strengthen Catholic schools appear to be factors, and could make this year’s gains significant, and a base on which to build future enrollment gains, Slattery said.
“When you can count on one hand the number of times this diocese has seen an enrollment increase, this is more than a blip,” Slattery said. “It’s a lot of hard work by a lot of people.”
That hard work includes strong marketing and outreach efforts by many schools, as well as emphasis from schools and the archdiocese to reach a growing population of Hispanics, and the archdiocese launching the “Catholic School. Awaken Greatness” marketing campaign late last year and numerous school grants and other initiatives under the archdiocese’s $52 million Ignite the Faith capital campaign, Slattery said.
Organizational efforts are having an impact, as well, he said. Three schools were closed in south Omaha in 2013, with students encouraged to attend a new five-school consortium in the area that centralized administration, marketing and curriculum efforts.
The three schools that led the Omaha area in enrollment gains this year are in the consortium: St. Thomas More with 418 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade this year, compared with 372 last year; Holy Cross with 388 students compared with last year’s 342; and Ss. Peter and Paul’s 233 students compared with 181 in 2014.
And in the rural areas, Norfolk Catholic Schools led in enrollment gains, with 33 more students at the elementary school and four more in the high school, archdiocesan officials said.
Gary Davis, principal of St. Thomas More, said his school has benefited from its own efforts and working with the consortium. The five-school initiative convinced many people in south Omaha the archdiocese was committed to keeping Catholic education strong, and the consortium is doing a good job promoting the schools, Davis said.
Six student transfers came through a tuition discount program the archdiocese encouraged in late July, Davis said. Under the program, public- and home-school students transferring to a Catholic school were given a $1,000 reduction in tuition for the 2015-2016 academic year and $500 for the 2016-2017 school year.
Other schools benefiting from the tuition discounts — bringing in a total of 41 new students — were Mary Our Queen, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Bernard, all in Omaha, and St. Gerald in Ralston and St. Mary and St. Matthew in Bellevue.
The president of the Norfolk schools, Troy Berryman, said gains there might be attributed in part to the system on its own hiring an enrollment coordinator just over a year ago to assist both schools.
And with help from the “Ignite the Faith” capital campaign funds, officials have expanded the preschool program, will better track alumni with new computer software and are updating technology offerings for students, he said. Those initiatives should help as the school strives for future enrollment gains, Berryman said.
Efforts by the schools coupled with archdiocesan programs appear to be making a difference, Slattery said.
“Collectively, I think it’s reasonable to believe it’s having an impact on enrollment,” he said.
Ruff is news editor of the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.