Catholic Schools Weather New Storms and Remain Strong

Despite tough challenges, Delaware Catholic schools persevere by offering a redoubtable education with a good foundation of values.

Grandparents Day has become a pretty standard operation for many Catholic schools. It’s a fun time for the students, and it offers the chance for great photo ops that land on the website or in promotional materials. For some institutions, it also serves as a chance to put the fundraising squeeze on the seniors. Talk about soft touches. What grandma doesn’t want to toss a few dollars toward her grandchild’s education? In early October, St. Anthony of Padua School in Wilmington welcomed 400 grandparents to its hallways and classrooms, and along with the gentle smiles and leisurely gaits came some extremely welcome visitors: alumni. Lots of alumni. “It’s our biggest attended day of the year,” school principal Judy White says. “Our parents and grandparents are loyal.” When St. Anthony was at the peak of its power, more than 500 students were enrolled from kindergarten through eighth grade. (The school now offers a pre-K option.) Just about all were from the streets and neighborhoods surrounding the parish, which opened in 1924. Most of them walked to the school, which began operations in ’54. And plenty of them sent their children to St. Anthony.

Now, third-generation students study there, and the Grandparents Day celebration was a chance for the school to reach back to its roots at a time when Catholic education in Delaware is facing some profound demographic and economic challenges. St. Anthony is a good example. Instead of 500 students, it serves 248, a number that has remained steady for the past five years. There used to be two full classes for each grade. There is one now, with the extra rooms used for math, reading, music and foreign language specialty instruction. As St. Anthony works to maintain its current enrollment, and even increase it slightly—“We are budgeted for 250-255 students,” White says—it must contend with some new realities of the Catholic educational experience. For instance, very few of its students walk to school these days, and not just because parents are loath to let their children do anything like that anymore. The school’s footprint has extended significantly beyond the immediate boundaries to include a sizable number of children from Bear and Middletown, students from Pennsylvania and even some from New Jersey.

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Like many Catholic schools, its enrollment is now driven not by a near-100 percent flow of parishioners but by parents who want a strong education for their children in a secure setting with a good foundation of values. For St. Anthony and others in the Wilmington diocese, whether parochial or independent, those selling points have remained constant for decades. “We have a lot of non-parishioners and non-Catholics here,” says White, who graduated from St. Anthony in 1984 and who put two children through the school. “They value the faith-based curriculum, even if they’re not of the same faith, and the safe environment.” The past decade hasn’t been so easy for Delaware’s Catholic Church (or that in just about any other state) and its affiliated educational institutions. The scandal involving its priests’ sexual assaults has shattered many Catholics’ connection to the church, caused a large number to stop attending Sunday Mass and forced some parishes to close or combine with others.


St. Anthony of Padua School pre-school students (from left) Billy Proud, Londyn Harris and Julianna Wright. 

The economic downturn that began in 2007 has prevented many families from being able to afford the tuitions Catholic schools charge, which can range from $4,000-$20,000, depending on the type of school. And demographic changes within the church, which have turned traditional city-based parishes like St. Anthony into more regional concerns, have changed the ages-old model that had student populations comprised entirely of children within a few blocks of the church. “In the years from 2003-10, we experienced schools merging, changing demographics and changes in the Catholic population,” says Louis DeAngelo, super-intendent of schools for the Wilmington diocese. “But that hasn’t happened lately. We always want to know where the Catholic population is moving and how it can be better served.” The Wilmington diocese serves 30 schools throughout Delaware, with others spread out over nine counties along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, according to DeAngelo.

Some are private and others parochial (parochial schools are usually affiliated with parishes and are overseen directly by the diocese, while private schools are independent of such influence), but all face the same challenges and have identical missions. And, for the most part, they are hearing the same thing from their constituents. “People are telling us they want a quality education and a quality Catholic education,” DeAngelo says. “That’s from Catholics and non-Catholics.” Delaware Catholic schools are giving the people what they want, even if they are doing so in increasingly smaller numbers. Despite seeing a relatively steady—albeit slowing—decline in their student population, they continue to exceed the norm in standardized testing numbers.

According to statistics provided by the diocese, scores for grade-school students throughout the state were better than 20 points higher than the norm and in some cases 30-35 percent better. Those are the kind of nitty-gritty stats any educator would love to see. For those involved in Delaware’s Catholic community, they are part of an equation that includes a high-level commitment to the church’s values. Parents choosing those schools are looking for both. “Even at St. PeterCathedral School [in Wilmington], which is 98 percent non-Catholic, parents subscribe to the values,” DeAngelo says. He acknowledges that during the early years of the century there was some upheaval within the diocesan education community, as schools were closed or merged, people left traditionally Catholic areas, especially in places like Wilmington, for suburban communities, and the church had to come up with a plan to save existing schools that had potential and create new ones that would serve burgeoning Catholic populations.

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Louis DeAngelo is superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington.

One of the newer sites is Christ the Teacher in Bear. The school opened in 2002 and is fed by four different parishes. Its 608 students (pre-K through eighth grade) make it the largest elementary school in the diocese. Unlike other schools, which were combined into an existing site, Christ the Teacher was created to serve as a regional educational center for churches unable to sustain schools themselves. “In most cases, they combined many schools into one school,” says Christ the Teacher principal Sister Laverne King. The school began with 350 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. When pre-kindergarten and seventh and eighth grades were added, a steady enrollment growth began that included 200 students from public schools. Christ the Teacher is a National Blue Ribbon School that has a waiting list in most grades, according to King, and benefits greatly from a new facility. St. Anthony of Padua is doing great work in Wilmington, but it is limited by its older building and city location that limits its footprint. When King speaks of her school’s “campus,” it’s hard not to be impressed. “We are blessed to be in a brand-new, state-of-the-art building on a great campus,” she says. “Who’s going to leave our school and say, ‘No’?” Enrollment issues are key to all non-public schools, since they need tuition dollars to survive.

Most schools budget for a certain ideal number of students and then work hard to meet—or exceed—that goal. But even when there is a solid enrollment contingent, the concept of financial aid comes into play. As the demographics of Delaware’s Catholic community shift, the need to find tuition support has grown. In Wilmington, the number of Latino Catholics is growing, but few are able to afford the diocesan schools. The cost of a parochial elementary education seems reasonable when compared with the fees associated with independent Catholic high schools, but it’s still onerous or completely out of reach for many. At St. Anthony of Padua, tuition for parishioners is $5,085 per year, while non-parishioners pay $6,085. The difference is expected to be made up each Sunday in collection envelopes, although that isn’t always the case, especially since the days of every Catholic family attending Mass each Sunday are long gone. While St. Anthony works to close that gap, it also is trying to offer more aid to students who need it. “One parent said the other day that she had to withdraw her child for financial reasons,” White says. “We said, ‘We can help you.’ She didn’t know that was possible.” That family received a portion of the tuition, and it helped keep the child in school.

Salesianum students (from left) Beau Bauer, Dean Colman, Joseph Latina and Dominic Malizia research international news on their iPads in the school’s Cultural Affairs classroom. 

For poorer families struggling to stay on their feet, even 50 percent aid is not enough. “If you throw out $500 a year to a student on a $5,600 tuition, that doesn’t help all that much,” DeAngelo says. “It’s an underserved population for us.” While changing demographics and the economy are reasons for a drop in attendance at Catholic schools, there is also the question of the impact of the scandals involving priests and administrators accused—and convicted—of abusing boys and covering up those crimes. No direct survey numbers exist to measure how many people have left schools or parishes because of the scandal, so there is no way to determine what it has meant for Catholic education. DeAngelo admits that there was widespread outrage about the abuse, and it’s impossible not to notice that some people have left the church, but he doesn’t think it has had a large effect on enrollment. “I would attribute very little attrition to that,” he says. “People didn’t see that as affecting the educational mission of a parish. They were rightly upset with the information but didn’t see it as a reason not to have children in Catholic schools.”

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The parochial grade schools may be nearing the end of their period of upheaval and reaching an equilibrium, but Catholic high schools in Delaware are doing quite well. At Salesianum, an all-boys prep school in Wilmington, its principal, the Rev. Chris Berretta, reports that enrollment is at 1,025 and features the largest freshman class in 20 years. Unlike elementary schools, which for the most part are dependent on geography for enrollment, secondary institutions draw from a larger area. But as times have changed, financial concerns become more challenging. Many of Salesianum’s faculty used to be religious, and that kept payroll costs under control. With a vast majority now laypeople, there has been significant growth in that area. The resulting tuition increases have created a greater need for financial aid. That means Salesianum must raise funds to help families make up the difference between the school’s cost and what they can pay. “We have to have a mission around fundraising, so that we can provide aid for families that need it,” Berretta says. “When we go to alumni and ask for gifts, they always say, ‘I want to give [money] for financial aid.’ They have a great sense of our mission and want Salesianum to have socioeconomic diversity.”

There is a different financial aid challenge at St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia. Since the high school is only 16 years old, it is focused on increasing enrollment and finding a way to build an endowment that will help provide financial aid for students who cannot afford the $10,300 tuition. Principal Julie Shively reports that there are “between 210-220” students on a campus that could hold 300 comfortably, without compromising what she calls St. Thomas More’s “great family atmosphere.” Part of the problem in adding funds to an endowment is that the school’s relative youth means its graduates haven’t yet accumulated the necessary wealth to make large gifts. “They are now in middle management and can give us maybe $100 a month,” Shively says. Unlike some other Catholic schools, which focus on a more generic—though still sturdy—set of “values,” St. Thomas More retains a strong identity. “We are Catholic, and we don’t apologize for that,” Shively says. “It’s not to the exclusion of others, because we are 40 percent non-Catholic, but we don’t water it down.” And since the school is young, it is still trying to discover the academic path it wants to follow.

Ursuline Academy second-graders (from left) Catherine, Alissa, Genesis and Sara. 

Shively doesn’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, since such self-analysis allows for experimentation at an interesting time for education. “There is great potential with our teachers and a great mix of kids,” Shively says. “We are now deciding what we want to be.” While schools grapple with costs, maintaining a strong student population, finding a way to provide aid and serving the community, they are focused primarily on their academic offerings, which are substantial. At Ursuline, which has the unconventional structure of being coed from pre-K through fifth grade and all-girls from sixth through 12th grade, the focus is on creating leaders among its middle- and high-school students. Although the school has struggled with its lower-school numbers, it has experienced no drop at the high-school level. One reason is that Ursuline has identified 21 traits it wants its students to display upon graduation and begins training girls in those areas as early as sixth grade. The goal is to create young women ready for the 21st century economy, and that means nurturing their abilities in areas that haven’t necessarily been heavily populated by women.

“We want to produce strong women who are confident in whatever world they choose,” says president and alumna (’70) Cathie Field Lloyd. “Sixty-six percent of our grads last year went into STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] careers.” Lloyd notes that when parents shop for independent high schools, they stress the academic side. When alumnae return, they talk about “character development,” she says. The term at Wilmington’s Padua Academy for that type of growth is “front-row girls.” That’s what university professors call the school’s graduates. They sit up front, pay close attention and contribute in class. It’s no wonder. The school, which has seen an enrollment growth from 542 to 661 during Head of School Cindy Mann’s six-year tenure, sets high expectations for its pupils and does everything it can to provide them with the opportunities to meet—or exceed—them. And last year’s graduating class earned $18 million in college scholar-ship money, according to Mann. “We expect a level of professionalism every day,” Mann says. “I’m not just talking about the classroom. I’m talking about leadership. If you don’t give kids the opportunity to practice leadership, it doesn’t matter.”

Students with ideas for programs are given the opportunity to make them realities. Teachers not only instruct in various course subjects; they also emphasize the need to learn grit and resilience. At the school’s most recent open house, more than 400 people showed up, double the number from 2013. Most of the students at the modest, city-block campus come from Delaware, but Mann reports growing numbers of families from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “Families see Padua as a steppingstone to a future at a top-tier university and a future in top industries, like medicine and law,” Mann says. “Parents don’t spend tuition money on just the school. They spend it on a culture of excellence and the values found in a culture of sisterhood.” In changing times, those aren’t bad things to find.

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