Schools see overall increase in enrollment despite pandemic

Students from St. Joseph in Anderson work on a project together. (Provided)

DIOCESE—Catholic schools came to the rescue of many parents as they wrestled with the idea of juggling their children’s virtual education while working — either outside or inside the home — during the recent school year. 

Thanks to strategic plans put in place for protection during the pandemic, Catholic educators across the state did not experience a huge drop in enrollment overall. In fact, many Catholic schools broke the national trend and saw an increase. 

William Ryan, secretary for education and superintendent of Catholic Schools for the diocese, said that there had been a steady decline in enrollment overall for the past five years, but that this school year saw an increase of 47 students. 

While some schools experienced a decrease in enrollment, others reported waiting lists, and one almost doubled its student body. St. Joseph in Anderson had an increase of 42 students — bumping them from 55 kids last school year to 97 for the 2020/2021 season. 

“That was a nice change,” Ryan explained. “It was definitely a positive shift in light of COVID.” 

He said that many schools could have actually accepted more students, but they had maxed out their enrollment by keeping the class sizes small to abide by the social distancing requirements of the pandemic.

This trend differs from the national average. Catholic News Service reported on Feb. 8 that the National Catholic Educational Association showed a decrease in enrollment by 6.4% this year, which was the biggest drop in 50 years. 

In South Carolina, Catholic schools seemed to have defied that average for a variety of reasons. 

Ryan reported that many of the new families were previously enrolled in area public schools, but switched because “parents could not wait until early September for their children to start and they were also concerned with a virtual education.”

He also suggested that the enrollment increase could be due to the vast amount of people moving to South Carolina from northern states in the past year as well. 

Although socioeconomics did play a role in some areas of the state, Ryan noted that schools that had dramatic decreases in enrollment were because they had changed their programs. For example, at least five schools were restructured with fewer grade levels, including St. Michael in Murrells Inlet and Holy Trinity in North Myrtle Beach. Other restructured schools are St. Martin de Porres in Columbia, St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg, and St. Anne & St. Jude in Sumter.

Ryan admitted that the pandemic gave many Catholic Schools the opportunity to market their unique qualities. From day one, they have taught both face-to-face and virtually. This gave their teachers an opportunity to leverage technology as well. 

Bishop England High School on Daniel Island, which was initially worried about the impact of the pandemic, saw an increase from the previous year. Kit Brownell, director of admissions, reported that they are currently sitting at a 98% re-enrollment rate and are on target to increase enrollment next year as well since they currently have a waiting list. 

“We could not accept many of the students on the waiting list this year because of the restrictions on class sizes. We are expecting a large freshman class next year,” Brownell said.

Haymee Giuliani, principal at St. Joseph, said they also have a waiting list. She attributes some of the reason for their increase to the raised awareness of the school overall.

“The community rallied around us and showed support,” she said, noting that one of the highlight contributions came from the local Knights of Columbus chapter, which built the school an outdoor classroom. 

“It has been a blessing to use the space outside for guest speakers and to social distance for instruction during this pandemic,” Giuliani shared. 

She said that the people of their parish wanted the children to have as normal of a school year as possible so they became more involved helping to make it a success. 

“I truly believe in the power of prayer and prayers have helped us so much this year. We are on target to have more students next year. The excitement is contagious. I couldn’t be more grateful,” she said.