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San Diego Catholic Diocese Searches For A Way To Keep Schools Afloat

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

The Catholic school business model needs to change, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego wants to change it before more schools go out of business.

About 14 kids sit on a carpeted floor in the first-grade classroom of Blessed Sacrament Parish School just off El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego. One by one, the children walk to the front of the room, with papers in hand, and do a presentation on some exotic animal. The kids are prepared and well behaved, and the class size is small. Just what any parent would want, right?

But the problem here is the classes are too small. In the early 1990s, Blessed Sacrament had 450 students in its kindergarten through eighth-grade school. Now there are only about 130. An enrollment of at least 200 tuition-paying kids is the benchmark for keeping a Catholic school in the black. But the school’s new principal, Anne Egan, who was brought in to manage a turnaround, said she’s looking at the bright side.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

First-graders at Blessed Sacrament Parish School in San Diego ask questions after a classmate presents his report on an interesting animal, January 2015.

“I don’t have a concern that Blessed Sacrament will have to close,” Egan said. “With the number of students in our enrollment now, we’re only going up. So, I’m confident that’s we’ve got a neighborhood, a parish and a diocese that will help us thrive into the future."

Millions of Americans have grown up with a Catholic education. Catholic schools have served America’s immigrants, and they have served the poor. The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego still has 43 schools. But parochial education faces a crisis here and around the country, where enrollment declines and school closures have become the norm.

Put simply, the old business model of Catholic schools has become obsolete, due to a thicket of financial and demographic changes.

Catholics today are having smaller families, which means fewer students. Until recently, religious orders provided a resident supply of nuns to teach the kids. Now schools have to hire lay teachers, causing labor costs to spike and tuition to go up.

Then there is the organization of Catholic education itself, in which each parish is essentially a different school district, and its priest the superintendent.

Scott Himmelstein, with the Center for Education Policy and Law, uses San Diego’s Catholic schools as an example.

“So you’ve got 43 separate school systems, so to speak, each with their own tuition, each with their own curriculum,” Himmelstein said. "And in a sense they are competing against each other for students, and they are very heavily influenced by whomever the leadership is of that particular parish."

His group, based at the University of San Diego, did a study that was commissioned by the late San Diego Bishop Cirilo Flores. Flores was bishop for only a year before dying of cancer in September. Even so, his spirit looms over the current movement in the diocese to make Catholic education financially sustainable.

Photo credit: Southern Cross

The late Bishop Cirilo Flores, shown in this undated file photo, commissioned a study of the financial sustainability of Catholic schools.

Among the study’s recommendations: create a foundation to financially support the schools; and reorganize schools so the diocese becomes more like a school district, providing support with training, purchasing and marketing.

Damian Esparza, director of stewardship and development at the San Diego diocese, said schools need the backing of not just one local parish but of all San Diego Catholics.

“Whether it’s us as Catholics who sit in the pews or whether it’s our parishes. We are all responsible for Catholic education,” Esparza said.

Part of the struggle to maintain Catholic schools has been a story of changing demographics and changing neighborhoods. Sacred Heart Academy in Ocean Beach was forced to close in 2013. Once a family neighborhood, Ocean Beach had become a place dominated by the young and the childless.

Schools in danger of closing are often found in inner-city neighborhoods. Catholic immigrant groups such as the Irish and Italians have left those places for the suburbs, to be replaced by poor blacks and Latinos.

Another San Diego school with financial problems is Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in City Heights, with an enrollment of about 148 students.

Former Principal Gabby Enciso said she has gone back to being a classroom teacher because the stress of making ends meet at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was getting the better of her. That’s how it was at a school where low-income parents were the norm and so many students did not pay full tuition.

“My motto was to let people attend no matter what. But to pay teacher salaries and pay the water bill, I was pulling my hair out,” Enciso said.

Latinos, America’s new wave of immigrants, make up 46 percent of San Diego’s school-aged children. Just like the Irish, they are predominantly Catholic. But many are unable to afford Catholic school tuition.

Angie Nieves stands on 30th Street in San Diego in front of St. Patrick’s church with her daughter, Victoria, by her side. Nieves has struggled to keep her children in Catholic school. Now she sends three of her six kids, including Victoria, to St. Patrick’s School, which sidles up to the church in North Park. She says Catholic school had been a place where her children receive a spiritual message and where she believes they are safe.

“This is like a safe haven for us. I can go to work and know they are well taken care of and are surrounded by people who love them and believe the same,” Nieves said.

For Nieves, the cost of tuition has been a hardship. She told this to the principal of St. Jude Academy, the school her kids used to attend.

“We’re losing our house. My husband’s disabled. I’m the only working parent and we did not have the money,” Nieves said, describing her conversation with the principal. “She kept putting numbers in front of me to see what we could afford, and I kept having to say ‘no.’ So at one point she said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re going to take care of you.’”

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Damian Esparza, director of development with the San Diego diocese, discusses why he believes every Catholic must take some responsibility for the success of Catholic schools, December 2014.

Her story of a generous principal had a sad ending for the school. St. Jude’s was forced to close in 2011. The Nieves family still enjoys a tuition break at St. Patrick's. But collection of less than full tuition adds to the financial challenge of any school.

Full tuition at Catholic K-8 schools is typically $4,000 to $5,000 a year. Making Catholic education available to people who are not well off is a challenge for which the diocese has no easy answer. Remaking Catholic education is a work in progress.

Damian Esparza, with the diocese, says the vision of a faith-centric, financially sustainable education that doesn’t exclude the poor remains the goal.

“I think the vision of Bishop Flores is any child that wants to attend Catholic schools can have the opportunity to attend a Catholic school,” Esparza said. “Are we there right now? No, we’re not. Is that the direction we’re looking to go? Yes.”

The diocese has taken some small steps. They’ve created a scholarship fund for students in need in the name of Flores. Blessed Sacrament has joined with other Catholic schools in a partnership to combine resources and make group buys.

Still, money is very tight. Last year, salaries for all teachers at Blessed Sacrament reverted to entry level. That meant a pay cut for senior teachers that was up to 30 percent.

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