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Catholic High Schools Could Learn From Charter School Success, Study Says

Facing declining enrollment, Catholic schools need to rethink their model and their audience.

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Cost and changing demographics caused Catholic school enrollment to drop 25 percent over the last 10 years, experts say.
Cost and changing demographics caused Catholic school enrollment to drop 25 percent over the last 10 years, experts say.

With enrollment dropping nearly 25 percent between 2000 and 2011, Catholic schools need to "innovate or die," according to a recent report by the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy group. To innovate, Catholic schools should imitate their largest competitor—charter schools—by adopting a blended curriculum that harnesses student data to identify learning opportunities, says Sean Kennedy, author of the report.

"Blended learning is fundamentally a mentality or model that says we are going to customize learning to the students' needs," Kennedy says, adding that the "factory model" in most Catholic schools requires teachers to gear their content toward the average student in the room, leaving some bored and others struggling to keep up.

Enrollment at charter high schools grew by nearly 950,000 students from 2000-2010, with approximately 3,500 new charter high schools opening their doors during that same time frame, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Catholic high schools, on the other hand, saw enrollment drop by almost 55,000 students between 2000 and 2011, and roughly 2,000 schools serving all grade levels closed in the past 10 years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association's annual report.

[Learn how to choose the best high school for your child.]

The reason Catholic schools are struggling to maintain enrollment has nothing to do with teaching methods, says Karen Ristau, president of the NCEA.

"We have all kinds of innovation going on in our schools," Ristau says, challenging Kennedy's assertion that Catholic schools are averse to change. "They have changed, and kept up, and in many cases led the way." One Catholic school in rural Wisconsin, for example, uses E-learning to offer its students five different foreign language options, Ristau notes.

But innovating also means figuring out how to appeal to the new Catholic population, which is no longer made up of German, Irish, and Polish immigrants, says the Lexington Institute's Kennedy, himself the product of a Catholic education.

"Now it's Hispanics; it's Colombians; it's Mexicans; it's Cubans," he says. "So why is your school 70 to 80 percent white?"

Only 3 percent of Hispanic parents send their children to Catholic school, and the Lexington Institute cites a survey of Spanish-speaking parishioners in one community, which revealed that 45 percent of parents did not know where the nearest Catholic school was located.

[Read how gains among Latinos helped boost the nation's graduation rate.]

Part of the reason is perception—Catholic schools are synonymous with the elite in many Spanish-speaking countries—and the other part is cost, Kennedy notes.

Average annual tuition for an incoming freshman at a Catholic high school was more than $8,182 for the 2011-2012 school year, according to the NCEA. Tuition at public high schools, including charter schools, is free.

"If you're a laborer who's scraping by … Catholic schools don't even come to mind," Kennedy says.

But there is tuition assistance available for families who want to send their student to Catholic school, says NCEA's Ristau, who advises parents to visit the school in their parish to see what kind of help is available.

Private foundations such as the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago raise money to send low-income students to Catholic schools, and tuition at many Catholic schools is income-based, Ristau says.

"By and large, we try to never turn a child away," she adds.

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