LATHAM and DELMAR – Why pay thousands when an education at a local public school is free? Area Catholic schools say families are spending for a smaller, safer environment as they experience rebounding enrollments.
For years, Catholic schools locally and across the country faced declining enrollment. Bishop Maginn High School in Albany closed its doors in 2022. LaSalle Institute in Troy, an all-boys school for 170 years, began admitting girls in 2021 ostensibly to boost enrollment. In the Capital Region, Catholic Central High School, once located in Troy, opened its doors in 1923 with a class of 525 students. Today, 315 students attend the school. Joseph Catalano, a St. Thomas the Apostle school graduate, current teacher and board member, remembered when he attended St. Thomas in Delmar in the 1960s, there were 50 students in a class. Now each grade level ranges from 11-20 students.
But since its nadir in 2021, local Catholic School enrollment is on the rise. In the midst of COVID, in 2021 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany saw about a 4% increase in enrollment across the diocese.
The most significant expansion occurred through the 2022 merger of 100-year-old Catholic Central High School of Troy and St. Ambrose Elementary School to form a regional educational center in Latham. The merger produced a one-stop Catholic education from pre-K to high school graduation on St. Ambrose’s 19-acre campus. Last summer, the newly formed Catholic Central completed a $2 million renovation to the St. Ambrose campus to prepare it for the influx of middle and high school students.
Catholic Central also just announced a two-year capital campaign with a $15 million goal to add new classrooms to grow its high school.
Lily Spera, Catholic Central School co-principal, said student population growth is already being felt at the elementary level. She said the second-grade class stands at 17 students, the highest number since 2014.
“We would love to hit capacity and growing to a place where we are adding wait lists,” said Spera. “That’s in our future – eventually.”
Until then, Spera said that growth is also measured by the retention rate, which is increasing.
“This was the first year of almost 100% retention rate in grades 1-6,” said Spera, noting that “many fifth-graders stayed and moved to sixth grade here. Retention is growth.”
Two other local diocesan schools – St. Thomas and St. Pius X School in Loudonville – have also seen growth. At St. Thomas, Principal Adam Biggs reported that its K-8 school currently has 189 students enrolled, with a capacity for 250. But, some classes – fifth and eighth grade and pre-K and kindergarten are full. Biggs, who expects to have 200 students by June, explained that growth at St. Thomas is also happening through retention numbers it sees at transition phases of education.
“Our retention at the pre-K level is as high as 50-60%,” said Biggs, calling that “a great retention level.”
Biggs noted that St. Thomas faces the challenge of its location in the Bethlehem Central School District, which he called “a very good school district.” Only 20% of St. Thomas students come from Bethlehem, and the remainder arrive from Albany, Voorheesville, Guilderland, Ravena, Selkirk, Catskill and Greenville.
St. Pius, a pre-K-8 program with students from 30 school districts, has seen growth at all grade levels, also with pre-K leading the way. Its enrollment increased this year to 520 from 500 and it has seen steady growth for three years.
Christian Brothers Academy, a private boys’ Catholic junior and senior high school located in Colonie, has also seen steady growth, having increased its annual enrollment over the past 10 years from 350 students to 570 currently.
Similarly, Academy of the Holy Names, a private girls’ Catholic grades 6-12 school in Albany saw a 10% increase in enrollment this school year and a 37% increase in its Fall 2023 Open House attendance.
All of the Catholic school representatives viewed academic achievement as just the baseline for attracting students to Catholic schools. They attribute the initial enrollment increase to their greater nimbleness during COVID.
“When COVID hit, we never shut down and were fully open, which was very attractive to families,” said Biggs.
“During the pandemic, we could report back in person more quickly and stay in person longer,” said Spera. “We could personalize instruction more and be flexible so families experienced what it was like working with a school versus working according to what the school says, and while this is something we have always done, it became more evident to parents.”
Principals also say this bounce back is not just a COVID-related blip. Tuition at these area Catholic schools ranges from $6,000 to $19,500, depending on the school and grade level. Catholic Central co-principal Richard Harrigan attributed the increased enrollment, even in face of tuition costs, to families being attracted to “community” and “a safe alternative to public schools.”
“We have families who experienced going to Catholic school, and many families are alumni,” said Spera. “They believe in the sacrifice in giving the kids an experience they had themselves and as an alternative to public school. We have small class sizes, know what students need and have the freedom to teach, assess and give our students experiences they need and not just driven by a test.”
Christian Brothers Academy Director of Admissions Brian O’Connell and St. Pius X School Principal Matt Rucinski both described the tuition as an investment.
“If you want your son to be a great man in the eyes of God, a service leader and get into a good college, the investment you make now, you will get back in the end,” said O’Connell.
Rucinski called a Catholic education “the best investment a parent can make.”
“It plants that mustard seed at developing a moral foundation, moral compass, that the child will use for the rest of their lives,”he added.
All the schools interviewed said that financial aid is available for their qualifying students, but not all students receive aid and the amounts vary. Biggs explained the reasons why parents will pay for a Catholic school education.
“Parents want to be involved in their kid’s education, and that is not always happening in the public sector, and they have a desire to know we are teaching children how to be a good person,” said Biggs.
He said St. Thomas achieves this through small class size and having monthly service projects, like food drives, reading to the elderly at nursing homes and other opportunities, to try to invest the students in helping others.
Spera said parents are willing to pay for an education that allows students to “have different conversations and more well-rounded conversations about morality and behavior.”
Also underlying families’ willingness to pay for a Catholic school education is that “we are going to mass/prayer and giving students an opportunity to explore their faith and engage in conversations that can’t happen in the public schools – for good reason – there are laws against it,” said Biggs.
Parent issues with public schools also drive enrollment, according to Rucinski. He said St. Pius X receives “a lot of inquiries from public school families because of concern about topics being taught in public schools and questions not being answered. Topics like family life, sexuality and racially related topics.”
“Parents look to see what’s going on in the public schools, like vaping, and there is an expectation it doesn’t happen here,” he said. “We have to in a school where a family pays something to come here because all families want to make sure their child is getting the best experience.”
And, according to these administrators, it’s not just Catholic families who seek out the Catholic school environment. All these schools reported having students from outside the Catholic faith, such as Protestants, Hindus, Jews and Muslims, as well as non-observant Catholic families.
“There are probably a top five reasons parents pick Catholic schools and Catholic identity is maybe number five on that list,” said Rucinski.
Catholic Central at grades 6-12 is only 65% Catholic, and with the exception of four students, the remainder is Christian non-Catholics.
“We are rooted in the Catholic faith, but it’s the morality that attracts them,” said Harrigan.
“We pride ourselves on being a Catholic school, but other aspects have strengths so we have well rounded programs for our students,” said Spera.
“Nobody leaves because we’re Catholic. If anything, I believe that helps with our retention,” said Biggs.
Is this a permanent trend and will retention rates hold? Spera disputed that the increases seen by Catholic Central is just a COVID bump.
“No, it’s a new wave,” she said. “If it was just a COVID bump, we wouldn’t see this kind of retention – there has been a change in conversation about Catholic school.”
Much of the growth at St. Thomas and Catholic Central is at the younger grades, which represent the future of the schools.
“Our pre-school has a waiting list,” said Catalano. “We could give over the whole school to the pre-K.”
“They come here for the love of the experience and want something more,” said Harrigan. “It’s why people pay more money to shop at a food co-op versus a chain grocery store.”