The economic recession gripping the country has taken a toll on Catholic schools across the Diocese of Charleston.
Some schools are holding their own in terms of enrollment, but others have seen anywhere from small to large drops in their student population. One thing they have all experienced is a dramatic rise in financial aid requests.
Sister Julia Hutchison, diocesan superintendent of education, said the number of families seeking financial assistance rose by 50 percent. Overall enrollment figures for the state will not be available until after the first week of school.
The Sister of Notre Dame urged parents to remember the unique qualities a Catholic education provides, which make it a good investment regardless of the economy.
She said it is the only school system that teaches children to live their Catholic faith while also providing excellent academics.
“We are centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These are the qualities we teach every day,” Sister Julia said.
She noted that during the school year, a child spends more time with teachers than anyone else, and cautioned parents to be very careful about who that teacher is and what they are teaching. At a Catholic school, parents know what values their children are learning, she said.
Whether enrollment is up or down, diocesan schools are looking for ways to help their students and themselves survive the crunch.
At Our Lady of Peace School in North Augusta, Karen Wilcox, principal, said they have made a number of sacrifices to make ends meet.
They lost a teacher’s aide position, decreased some people’s hours, and now are tapping the community for help maintaining the school. Wilcox said families and faculty have fixed the air conditioning, laid carpet, painted, and sewn curtains.
“We’re doing the barter system,” she said. “Things that are standard just aren’t working in this economy.”
Wilcox also found a way to provide a music program for her students at a minimal price. She said Paul Essman Music out of New York offers weekly instruction through a certified teacher and instrumental lessons to band members starting in fourth grade.
Our Lady of Peace raised a portion of the fee, which is under $6,000, with a Christian rock concert, Wilcox said.
“It’s a way for us to offer something we absolutely would not be able to afford,” she said.
St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton has seen an increase in their enrollment. Part of the rise is attributed to the addition of the seventh grade this year, but Sister Canice Adams, principal, said they have seen growth in other grades also.
Sister Canice, of the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, said her school has an adopt-a-student program that provides those in need with tuition, uniforms, books and supplies.
“People want to be asked. They want to help. I tell them, ‘This is your opportunity to adopt a child and never have to feed it, never have to take it home, never have to buy it clothes!’” she said with trademark good humor.
Another school that has held steady is St. Andrew in Myrtle Beach, but Molly Halasz said they received a large number of financial aid requests.
Luckily, she said, they had seen the handwriting on the wall and held their first annual Back to School bash last year to raise money for scholarships. Without the fundraiser, Halasz said they would have fewer families returning.
Like other schools, St. Andrew is looking for ways to raise more money and save money through various programs, such as environmental efforts. They have also frozen the payroll.
Fred McKay, principal of Charleston Catholic in peninsular Charleston, said the faculty has been understanding about the lack of raises. He and other principals said everyone is relieved to have a job.
If the economy and enrollment does not turn around, McKay said it is a real possibility that jobs will have to be cut.
The small downtown school is struggling this year as financial aid requests skyrocketed and enrollment dropped. McKay said families seeking assistance rose from 14 percent last year to 20 percent this year. His school has not eliminated positions yet, but has reduced some to part-time by turning special area instruction over to homeroom teachers in the lower grades.
McKay said coping with the economy was a big topic of conversation at the recent principals’ meeting in Columbia. He said they need to reach out to the Catholic community and reiterate why parochial school education is worth the cost.
Tuition is a big factor for families, and schools across the state are holding extra fundraisers or finding ways to bolster existing ones.
St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia always has a Spring Fling event, and this year will host the Deacon Roland Thomas Memorial Scholarship luncheon on Oct. 3 at Fort Jackson, said Sister Roberta Fulton, principal.
“Parents are finding it very hard. They want to return, but money is really a problem across the board with our parents,” Sister Roberta said.
Last year, the school combined grades to make one class each for first and second, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth. Sister Roberta, of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, said it was a wonderful decision that allowed students to have remediation or advance to a higher group.
As with other schools, volunteers are also helping out more than usual. She said parents, teachers and parishioners have contributed to school upkeep through projects such as painting and landscaping.
So far, efforts to raise funds and save money have worked for the diocese, but other areas of the country have not been so lucky. Religious leaders are concerned about the increasing number of Catholic schools that are being closed, especially in the Northeast.
Dozens of schools in Boston, Mass., Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., have either been closed, consolidated or converted to charter programs, according to news reports.
According to statistics from the National Catholic Educational Association, the total number of schools as of March 2009 was 7,248. This figure includes 6,028 elementary schools and 1,220 secondary schools.
In the 1960s, there were 12,893 schools with about 5.25 million students.
Sister Julia said it is unlikely this trend will be reversed, but said it is up to the Catholic Church to continue to offer an alternative to secular schooling.
She acknowledged that parents have an extra burden not only with tuition, but also with transportation. The superintendent also noted that one parish cannot do the job alone, and said all parishes throughout the diocese should contribute to supporting Catholic education.
“There’s only so much one little parish can do all by itself,” she said. “The financial expectations of one parish to support a school is incredibly difficult.”
Sister Julia said there is light in the economic gloom in the person of Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone. She said they have wonderful plans for the coming year that will inspire confidence and renew optimism.