Enrollment in Chicago’s Catholic elementary schools is up for the second straight year – the first time that’s happened since 1965, officials said Friday.
“We’ve been trying to rewrite the script,” said Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of the largest Catholic school system in the nation. “It’s just a question of ‘Stop moaning and start doing.”’
The Archdiocese of Chicago Friday said its city enrollment in grades preK to eight has grown by nearly 650 students in the past two years – marking the first two-year boost in more than four decades.
Spotty suburban declines are dragging overall archdiocesan elementary numbers down by .8 percent compared to last school year, although enrollment in suburban Cook and Lake counties is stabilizing in many areas, officials said. For the second year in a row, more than half of the Archdiocese’s 216 elementary schools have stable or growing populations.
The biggest boom is in the earliest years. Systemwide, across Cook and Lake County, archdiocesan preK for both 3- and 4-year-olds is up 15 percent; kindergarten is up 3 percent, and first grade is up 2 percent compared to two years ago, said Ryan Blackburn, Archdiocesan Catholic School spokesman.
City Catholic schools are seeing enrollment increases in portions of the west, north, southwest and south sides, ranging from Pilsen to Bucktown and from the South Loop to Bronzeville, officials said.
At St. Hyacinth Catholic School, 3640 W. Wolfram, Principal AnnMarie Mahay said enrollment jumped from 105 last September to 186 this fall. Over that time, the Avondale school took in about ten former Chicago Public School students but also more preschoolers, Mahay said.
“Last year we had 25 preschoolers. This year we have 40,” Mahay said. “I think parents are starting to notice the value of a preschool over daycare.”
Plus, the Archdiocese is doing a better job of holding on to its kids, some data indicates. Families with kindergarteners through seventh graders are re-registering at the rate of 97.7 percent, up from 95.4 percent two years ago, Blackburn said.
Officials cite the economy as both a help and a hindrance.
In Chicago, more parents who would normally move to the suburbs may be staying in the city rather than selling their homes, Blackburn said. They could be choosing Catholic schools based on an increased variety of preK offerings (of two-day, three-day and five-day-a-week programs), smaller class sizes, more classes in Spanish as a second language and other curriculum enhancements, Blackburn said.
“Where we’re getting pounded is the middle-class collar [counties],” McCaughey said.
The real estate downturn means more older suburban folks aren’t moving out to create openings for families with kids, she said. And the dour job market means those younger middle-class suburban families who remain are finding it tougher to cover tuition, especially for multiple children, McCaughey said.
McCaughey’s next goal is to move the upward trajectory beyond Chicago.
“Chicago was a proud Catholic city,” McCaughey said. “Within the next two years we can rewrite history and say Catholic enrollment is up everywhere in the archdiocese. That’s my goal. Rewrite the script.”