Three Chicago-area Catholic schools are slated to close this year, the latest shutdowns in a decades-long streak of falling enrollment and multimillion-dollar deficits.
But some good news comes along with the announcement of the latest cuts: the nation’s largest Catholic school system does not plan on getting smaller in the near future, superintendent Jim Rigg told the Chicago Sun-Times.
School closings announced this week come on the heels of a dozen schools closed or consolidated in 2013 and five closings last year. However, newly appointed superintendent of archdiocesan schools Rigg said the archdiocese will be looking for enrollment increases when it unveils a new strategic plan next year.
“We are looking at devising a new strategic plan, and we know it’s going to be a plan that represents growth and expansion and optimism,” Rigg told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think the foundation, the bones, are very strong here. … We feel like in spite of school closings we are going in the right direction.”
Rigg comes to Chicago from Ohio, where as head of the Cincinnati archdiocese’s schools he was able to stanch a steady bleed of students and lead a $130 million fundraising drive. He arrives at a fairly upbeat moment for a school system that has seen a steady decline in students since enrollment peaked at 366,000 in the mid-1960s.
Enrollment at Catholic schools in the city limits grew just over 1 percent last year, and fell by less than 1 percent across the archdiocese’s territory of Cook and Lake counties. Church leaders are closing out a $350 million fundraising campaign targeted for Catholic schools, and expect to join other religious groups in a push for tax credits for private and parochial school leaders in the next legislative session.
The Chicago archdiocese was hit hard by the mid-1990s arrival of charter schools in Illinois. Enrollment in the archdiocese schools was falling when the first charters opened, with nearly all charters in the state founded in the city limits. Of the 145 charter campuses in the state, more than 130 are in the archdiocese territory of Chicago, Cook and Lake counties. The number of Catholic school students dived 26 percent in the decade after the 1995-96 school year, from 138,000 to 102,000.
All told, Chicago-area Catholic schools have lost 54,654 students from 1995 to 2014, while charter school enrollment in areas covered by the archdiocese has reached nearly 59,000.
Charter school competition was one of the factors that laid low St. Agatha Academy, where the class of pre-kindergartners that graduates this spring will be the last students at the 108-year-old North Lawndale campus, said Pastor Larry Dowling. The archdiocese announced Monday St. Agatha will be closed this year, along with St. Peters in Antioch and Seton Academy in South Holland.
There are 10 charter schools within walking distance of St. Agatha’s campus, and modern parents are more than willing to send their children to schools a 20-minute drive away to drop their children at a school they think is successful.
“There was a sense, an illusion, I think, that charter schools were just as good as Catholic schools, and that [charters] don’t cost anything,” Dowling said this week, after learning St. Agatha’s was marked for closure. “More than anything, what we hear from parents is they can’t afford tuition.”
Not all of charter growth has come at the expense of Catholic schools, Rigg said, noting enrollment in Chicago Public Schools also has declined.
“Our students don’t appear to be leaving for charter schools, but we have no way of knowing how many students don’t start in Catholic schools because they choose a charter,” Rigg said.
Catholic schools increasingly are borrowing from charters, by focusing on smart financial management and on marketing. Parishes were easily able to support their own schools when staffing costs were minimal — priests and nuns worked for free — and parishioners enrolled their children as a matter of course. Decades of suburban flight and the changing demographics of most parishes in the city left the church with campuses in struggling neighborhoods were tuition was out of reach.
“Back then, tuition was more affordable, and a parish believed that a lot of its Sunday [donation] envelopes were going to support the schools,” said Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, who was Rigg’s predecessor and has moved to a position leading fundraising and lobbying efforts for the archdiocese’s schools. The archdiocese has subsidized struggling schools to the tune of around $20 million in recent years, a sum that Archbishop Blase Cupich has called “unsustainable.”
McCaughey has said religious leaders across the state plan to lobby for legislation to create tax credits for religious and private schools, having abandoned a push for a voucher program. The archdiocese also is seeking funding from businesses and donors outside the traditional world of Catholic fundraising, McCaughey said.
The “To Teach Who Christ Is” campaign, launched in 2013, has set a goal of raising $350 million for Catholic education, including $150 million set aside as a trust for scholarships. The campaign has raised $225 million to date, archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Burritt said.
The Big Shoulders Fund, established in the 1980s, helps struggling Catholic schools with marketing and strategic planning and scholarships to lower tuition costs, said Josh Hale, executive director.
“Catholic school principals, they went to schools because they wanted to be educators, they weren’t taught about marketing, they weren’t taught about management,” Hale said. “We’ve seen in schools that have marketing, that have development positions, they’ve stabilized enrollment and even grown.”
Still, given that many of the 82 schools Big Shoulders supports are in impoverished areas — Big Shoulders only provides assistance to schools in low-income neighborhoods — Hale says the prospects for all Catholic schools to operate in the black, or even to break even, are unlikely.
“These schools do a lot of things that the church is very committed to. These schools contribute to stable communities,” Hale said, noting that fewer than two-thirds of students in the archdiocese’s poorest parishes are Catholic.
“They’re always going to need to be supported, and it’s always going to require a lot of hard work.”
Enrollment at St. Margaret of Scotland School, a K-8 school in Washington Heights, has climbed from 150 to 220 — and the school’s deficit has been cut nearly in half, to about $400,000 — in the last three years under new principal Kevin Powers.
Big Shoulders provided a financial plan, marketing advice and money that allows the school to reduce tuition — which runs at about $4,000 per year — for parents who help recruit new students, Powers said.
“I think we could get to 250 students in the next couple of years,” Powers said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be at a zero deficit, because of the community need we serve, but our goal would be to have every classroom full.”