Struggling Catholic schools are fighting for survival

Economic woes force many shut

St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica, Calif., has managed to remain open by relying on tuition and private fund-raising. St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica, Calif., has managed to remain open by relying on tuition and private fund-raising. (Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times)
Email|Print| Text size + By Carla Rivera
Los Angeles Times / November 5, 2007

LOS ANGELES - Troubles at St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica were so dire at one point that the Rev. Michael D. Gutierrez turned to his congregation for help. He refused to give his sermon until at least 10 families stepped forward to consider enrolling their children in the financially strapped parish school.

A grim economic reality has been building for years in Catholic schools across the country: Hit by rising costs and tuition and declining enrollment, many are fighting for survival.

The number of Catholic schools in the United States declined by more than 850 from 1990 to 2005; scores of such institutions in New York, Detroit, and St. Louis operating at deficits have closed in recent years. Also, multimillion-dollar financial settlements reached with victims of priest sexual abuse have created new financial stresses.

Enrollment has plummeted in some areas because the population, especially young families with children, has shifted from the urban core to the suburbs where there are fewer parishes and schools. Also, many low-income urban residents who might consider parochial schools cannot afford to pay the tuition.

According to the National Catholic Education Association, enrollment is at a low of 2.3 million students attending roughly 7,500 Catholic schools, and about 15 percent of Catholic children attend parochial schools.

Adding to the problems, the nuns and priests who were once classroom staples have largely disappeared, replaced by lay teachers who seek the same salaries and benefits as their public-school counterparts.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese, which recently announced the closing of Daniel Murphy Catholic High School, has been beset by the same pressures, with total enrollment dropping to about 62,000 this year from more than 100,000 seven years ago.

Los Angeles has so far avoided large-scale school closings, and archdiocese officials said there was no plan to sell school properties to meet financial obligations. But many parishes are in a race to find creative solutions to problems that have been decades in the making.

The experience of the St. Anne School is a case study in how some schools are hanging on. The school was founded in 1908 by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary to serve the children of migrant farm workers tending the bean fields and orange groves. Today, St. Anne still caters to predominantly poor families who work in local businesses.

But it receives virtually no direct financial support from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which allocates subsidies based on the median income of the community where the school is located. The 244 schools in the archdiocese are ranked on a scale from one to 10 in terms of neediness, and only schools at levels eight, nine, or 10 receive money, said Michael Browning, St. Anne's principal.

Although St. Anne is near Santa Monica's Pico area, home to many working-class people, it also is close to mixed-use businesses and relatively expensive homes, so the school ranks as a six. Without archdiocese support, it relies on tuition and private fund-raising.

The school is a neighborhood mainstay though 90 percent of its students do not live in Santa Monica. Seventy-eight percent of its students are Hispanic, and three-quarters live below the poverty line.

St. Anne's revenues don't begin to cover the costs of educating its students, many of whom have most of their tuition waived so that they can remain in school. As the school has had to modestly increase tuition, enrollment has stalled or declined. With chronic operating deficits, St. Anne has struggled to stay open.

Browning reached out about 18 months ago to the nearby St. John's hospital for support, the headmaster at nearby Crossroads School solicited help from other private schools, and the St. Anne Support Council was created.

The council has raised more than $280,000 from its members and outside foundations to keep the school operating. St. John's, for example, gives $50,000 annually to pay for a school nurse and counselor twice a week.

It also has benefited from Gutierrez, whose social activism aligned with the school's historic traditions.

Although not completely out of the woods, St. Anne opened this fall with 200 students, remodeled classrooms and new music and science programs. "I don't know of any other Catholic school that's doing this, but I think something like the St. Anne Support Council can be a model for other schools," Browning said.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said local parishes decide how high to set tuition and that the schools have been effective in meeting students' educational needs despite having far less resources than the public school system.

"Where subsidies are inadequate or unavailable, parishes and schools have done what they've always done well - innovate," Tamberg said. "St. Anne's school is an example of Catholic education's innovative spirit."

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