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Spotlight Report

  Students at St. Joseph's School in Roxbury head to their classrooms after a morning meeting. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

Catholic schools struggle in the city

By Michele Kurtz and Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 3/9/2003

 School enrollments
While enrollment in suburban parish schools climbs, those in the city of Boston have seen an 18 percent drop in students since 1990.

Source: Archdiocese of Boston

 School closings
Communities in the Boston Archdiocese that have seen Catholic schools close since 1990.

Source: Archdiocese of Boston

Hours before dawn, the fathers were huddled in their cars outside Holy Family Elementary School in Rockland. Some listened to CDs as their car heaters whirred. Two watched a movie on a laptop computer. Student registration was 8 o'clock that morning, and there were only 12 slots left for new pupils living outside of Rockland. One father, clipboard in hand, jotted down the order of arrival while the others settled in for the wait.

The lineup in late January promised another booming year for the 450-student Catholic school where academics, moral lessons, and discipline draw students from 21 parishes in fast-growing communities south of Boston.

But 20 miles away at St. Joseph's School in Roxbury, a harsh reality was setting in: Enrollment hit a three-year low this year, and attempts to save the school by raising $200,000 netted just $1,000. A few weeks ago, letters went home with students carrying the sobering news that the school will close in June.

It's been that kind of year for Catholic schools -- good news in the suburbs and pains in the city. While enrollment in suburban parish schools is climbing and, in some cases, ballooning, the city of Boston -- one of the country's most prominent Catholic centers -- has seen an 18 percent drop in students since 1990.

Lagging enrollment and fiscal difficulties caused by a depressed economy and fallout from the church sexual abuse scandal prompted the Archdiocese of Boston, which educates 55,000 students in Boston and surrounding areas, to announce plans last month to close St. Joseph's and two other Boston schools.

The shuttering of schools is unlikely to stop there. Bishop Richard G. Lennon has said he may announce more closings soon. And last week, archdiocesan officials said that deep new cuts in annual spending could force school closings in large numbers.

The departure to the suburbs of many Catholics with European roots -- along with rising costs and tuition that has climbed 17 percent in two years -- have left some Boston schools' populations too small to be viable. A growing number of those involved in Catholic education believe this shifting enrollment -- from Boston, an entry point for immigrants, to the wealthier suburbs -- is threatening the archdiocese's ability to fulfill a critical part of its mission: Serving the poor in the cities.

''The Catholic schools that serve an affluent population will do fine. The Catholic schools that serve a low-income population are in serious trouble,'' said the Rev. Joseph M. O'Keefe, an associate professor at Boston College's Lynch School of Education. The school's annual national conference for Catholic educators this year will focus on serving children in poverty -- a switch, O'Keefe said, from the planned theme of early childhood education.

''When money gets scarce,'' he said, ''it's the poor who suffer difficulties disproportionately.''

Students in plaid skirts and ties filled the streets

Forty years ago, when the Archdiocese of Boston's enrollment peaked at 153,000 students, people joked there was a parish school on every corner and, in some cases, two. Students in ties and plaid skirts filled neighborhood streets and packed classrooms.

Archdiocesan officials and specialists blame numerous factors for the enrollment dropoff -- from escalating costs, to migration to the suburbs, to declines in parish donations, to competition from charter schools.

Decades ago, with teaching staffs made up largely of nuns and brothers -- who received small stipends but not salaries -- parish schools did not charge tuition. But as the number of people entering religious orders declined, so did the teachers.

Gone are the days when nearly every Catholic teacher was a nun; instead, salaried lay people now make up more than 90 percent of teaching staffs, said Sister Kathleen Carr, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

Meanwhile, migration out of the city in the 1960s and 1970s, combined with other factors, has led to a 35 percent drop in the number of school-age children in Boston -- Catholic or otherwise -- since 1960. Skyrocketing housing prices have driven a more recent exodus.

The Catholics who have left the city were replaced by other Catholics, many of them immigrants from South America and East Asia, some too poor to pay full tuition, which averages $2,570 for elementary school and $6,544 for secondary school.

The shift also has meant fewer donations in some parishes, another source of income for the schools. ''The whole face of the parishes here in Dorchester, of the inner city, has changed,'' said the Rev. Vincent P. Von Euw, pastor of St. Ambrose parish, which this year eliminated four grades from its elementary school because of budget woes. ''You have new people, you have new people struggling.''

In the last several years, new charter schools also have siphoned off students from parochial schools, at times offering strikingly similar programs to some small Catholic schools -- minus the religion -- but free of charge.

Uphams Corner Charter School in South Boston has some former parochial students, said headmaster Michael Mayo, a 1990 graduate of Boston College High School. Parents said they could no longer afford Catholic school tuition and they like public school accountability measures, such as MCAS, which apply to charters. The school, where 72 students wear uniforms and attend some single-sex classes, is leasing space at the old Cardinal Cushing High School, an all-girls Catholic school that closed in 1992.

''We focus on character and being a good person,'' Mayo said. ''I got that from my Catholic school upbringing.''

Several proponents of Catholic schools set out to find financial assistance for needy students 20 years ago in response to lagging support. The organization, now the Catholic Schools Foundation, this year distributed $4.8 million in tuition assistance to students at 61 urban schools, from Boston to Lawrence to Lowell, and another $1.1 million to poor students at neighborhood schools in other areas.

The church is closing schools in many cities

Peter S. Lynch, vice chairman at Fidelity Management & Research Co. and president of the foundation's Inner-city Scholarship Fund, stresses that foundation aid has enabled thousands of students to attend Catholic schools. ''What would the situation be without it?'' Lynch said.

Despite a report that said the organization might slash support to some schools next school year, the foundation has told schools to expect level funding for the fall.

At the same time, the archdiocese for years has given aid to cash-strapped parish schools, which make up two-thirds of the 174 schools in the archdiocese. (The rest are either central high schools, directed by an archdiocese-affiliated corporation, or independent schools, such as Boston College High School, that are overseen by independent boards and do not receive archdiocese subsidies.)

In recent years, the Cardinal's Appeal provided more than $4 million of operational help annually to parishes and their schools.

The efforts haven't been enough to reverse the trend.

This year, with contributions down in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal and a sagging economy, aid from the Cardinal's Appeal was cut by $600,000.

Since 1990, about two dozen schools in the Archdiocese of Boston have closed -- nearly half of them in Boston and more in other urban areas. All three slated to shut down this summer are in the city.

Boston is not unique: Dioceses in Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Toledo also have recently closed Catholic schools. Last year, 93 closed or consolidated -- almost none of them in suburban areas -- according to the National Catholic Education Association. The year before that, it was 61.

Merger has been the right move for some faltering campuses. Last year, officials with St. John the Evangelist School in Cambridge and St. Catherine of Genoa in Somerville decided to combine. St. John's closed, and about 100 of its 130 students began attending the Somerville school.

''It's kind of a wonderful success story,'' said Carr, the superintendent. She thought the idea could work elsewhere. But her office does not have the authority to target certain parish schools for closing and consolidation, she said, because canon law says parish schools are the responsibility of local pastors.

''We are a system of schools rather than a school system,'' Carr said. ''The Catholic Schools Office has no decision-making ability.''

Despite their autonomy, some of the parish schools are financially reliant on the archdiocese. And when funding has dried up, their pastors have sought mergers or requested permission to close the schools.

Still, Catholic school officials tried to broker a merger between Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School, an all-girls school in Dorchester, and St. Clare High School, an all-girls central high school in Roslindale. Both had low enrollments last year. School officials agreed on certain things -- for example, that St. Clare's building was far superior.

One sticking point: St. Clare's teachers were unionized and Monsignor Ryan's were not, making it difficult to combine the two staffs, said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

St. Clare's closed last year. And this school year, the pastor overseeing Monsignor Ryan learned the archdiocese would cut his parish's subsidy for its two schools from $420,000 to $300,000. Monsignor Ryan Memorial is slated to be shuttered this summer.

Getting up at 3 o'clock to secure a coveted slot

Margaret Bulger is moving south from Quincy in search of an affordable four-bedroom home -- and a Catholic school for her 4-year-old.

Holy Family in working-class Rockland boasts on its website that 86 percent of its graduates are accepted into the ''finest private and parochial schools in the area.'' So Bulger set about winning a coveted slot for her oldest son in next fall's kindergarten class. She told her husband to get to the school early for last month's registration. ''I booted him out of bed at 3 o'clock in the morning,'' she said. He was third in line in the freezing cold.

The 62-year-old Holy Family has grown by nearly 100 students from five years ago when the K-8 school launched a marketing campaign to try to recapture enrollment lost since the 1960s. Area parishes in wealthier communities now chip in to help with tuition for some students, while only one Holy Family student receives aid from the Catholic Schools Foundation. The school gets just $10,000 in assistance from the archdiocese.

Few places better illustrate the contrast between thriving suburban schools, such as Holy Family, and struggling urban ones than St. Joseph's School in Roxbury. The tiny, 149-year-old school for prekindergarten through sixth grade traces its roots to the Irish immigrants who landed in Boston by the thousands in the 19th century. At various times in its history, St. Joseph's has reinvented itself to stay alive, moving from a traditional Catholic school, to an Afrocentric community school run by a board of trustees, and currently, back within the archdiocese but continuing its emphasis on African-American culture. It already has closed twice in its recent past, once in 1970 and once in 1985.

But this will be its final year. Last spring, the Rev. Walter J. Waldron said, archdiocesan officials said they could give him about $87,000 toward the school's $450,000 budget -- and nothing more for the 2003-04 school year. Parents and alumni created a fund-raising committee, but it raised only $1,000 toward its $200,000 goal. The school that once educated the children of Irish immigrants currently teaches 114 students, almost all of them black, almost none of them Catholic. Sixty percent are from single-parent homes. The morning schoolwide meeting at which students and staff recite the Lord's prayer is called a ''harambee'' -- Swahili for ''gathering together'' -- and the children chant the black national anthem. Teachers emphasize African-American history and culture.

Yet St. Joseph's remains a tradition-bound Catholic grammar school. One recent morning, second-grade teacher Sharon Heinemeier guided her class of just 11 students through the Second Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.

Such lessons are what some faculty members say they most regret about the closing of St. Joseph's, especially for students from unstable families.

''I had this hope,'' said principal Mary Rogers, who has led the school since 1991. ''This is, after all, a very old parish and school. It has survived more changes than any school in the archdiocese, and maybe St. Joseph would somehow intervene as the good carpenter. But it didn't happen.''

School and church officials discussed merging the school with a nearby elementary campus, but decided their programs were too different. Nonetheless, Rogers and Waldron said they will try to place St. Joseph's students at St. Patrick's School, a 295-student K-8 school that is also in the parish. Some, like fifth-grader Tayla Walker, say they also are looking at Boston public schools and charter schools.

But like Rogers, she had a wish.

''I had a dream I was going to become a model and won a million dollars,'' said Tayla, 10. ''And I kept the school open.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/9/2003.
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