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‘Momentum’ building in Chicago Catholic schools despite enrollment losses

Chicago Archdiocese Supt. Jim Rigg (center) speaks Tuesday at the National Catholic Educational Association's 2019 convention at McCormick Place. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

A downward, decades-long trend in Chicago’s Catholic school enrollment continued this year — but at a slower pace that is sparking optimism in archdiocese leaders.

That’s according to figures presented Tuesday at the National Catholic Educational Association’s annual conference held at McCormick Place.

The 71,847 students enrolled this year in the 209 schools managed by the Archdiocese of Chicago — the Catholic Church’s local arm spanning Cook and Lake counties — marked a decrease of about 2 percent from the previous school year, archdiocese Supt. Jim Rigg said during a panel discussion on the “State of Catholic Education.”

It’s a “significant slowdown in the overall enrollment decline” that had seen rates well over 4 percent per year for most of the last decade, Rigg said.

“There is a sense of momentum and renewal building here. The hope is this is the beginning of a long-term trend,” Rigg said.

That would be welcome news for an archdiocese in the midst of consolidating several parishes as part of Cardinal Blase Cupich’s “Renew My Church” initiative to slash costs and restructure the city’s 97 parish groupings in the face of steadily shrinking church attendance.

Rigg called the situation in Chicago — the nation’s second largest Catholic school system — a microcosm of the sometimes “harrowing” nationwide enrollment declines that continue to plague archdioceses across the country.

Sixteen Catholic schools opened this school year around the country while 110 were closed or merged with other schools — the latest net loss for a private school network that has shrunk by 19 percent nationwide over the last decade, with 258 schools opened and 1,267 closed or consolidated, NCEA policy director Dale McDonald said Tuesday.

It’s all tied to the steady downward national trend for Catholic school enrollment since its height of more than 5.2 million in 1960, shrinking to under 1.8 million enrolled this school year, McDonald said.

At the root of the dwindling enrollment are shifting demographics, changing attendance patterns, reduced ranks of religious teachers and competitive public school teacher salaries — not to mention the biggest obstacle to enrollment: high tuition, according to McDonald.

A year of Catholic elementary school tuition runs $4,903 on average, with families set back $10,864 for high school. And those costs have shot up about 40 percent over the last decade.

That’s why lobbying lawmakers to open more doors to public assistance programs is key to the NCEA’s effort to stem the losses, McDonald said. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said his state budget proposal will scale back the private school voucher program championed by his Republican predecessor Bruce Rauner.

Meanwhile, starting Catholic school teacher salaries in Chicago are about half those of Chicago Public Schools teachers, mostly due to the political strength of the Chicago Teachers Union.

McDonald also cited a nationwide uptick in homeschooling and burgeoning charter schools as competitors siphoning off some families who otherwise might have enrolled in Catholic schools.

“A lot of times, people are seeing a Catholic school closed in their neighborhood, and a charter school moving right into that building to fill the void,” McDonald said.

Despite the sustained losses, Catholic school students continue to outperform public ed counterparts on standardized tests, with graduation rates topping 99 percent compared to 84 percent from public schools, federal statistics show.

McDonald singled out another key factor behind the sinking figures — “a pastoral problem.

“People are not going to church as they once did.”