Augusta Catholic schools say enrollment beginning to rebound as economy recovers

In Aiken this week, students at St. Mary Help of Christians School were challenged to commit 1,000 acts of service. Many chose to write letters of condolences to the Aiken Department of Public Safety after an officer, Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers, died in a shooting last weekend.

At Aquinas High School in Augusta, students were participating in a contest to write a school-sponsored prayer that will be used for decades to come.

In North Augusta, kindergartners at Our Lady of Peace School welcomed prospective pupils and their parents over tea.

The events were part of National Catholic Schools Week, an annual celebration that promotes the benefits of a Catholic school education and often serves as a kickoff for fall enrollment.

This year, some schools say they have an additional reason to celebrate as Catholic schools begin to rebound from a bad economy that left many parents unable to afford private education. A few report leaps in enrollment, while others project growth or say declines have slowed.

“In the past five years, enrollment has dropped because of the recession,” said Stephen Hickey, the principal of Our Lady of Peace. “We projected under 100 this year. But we exceeded our expectations by 40 percent.”

This year, the school’s 122 pupils participated in a schoolwide rosary, an open house, a family breakfast and a uniform-free school day for Catholic Schools Week, which ends today.

“Every day this week we’re trying to do something new. There’s a lot to celebrate,” Hickey said.

Catholic Schools Week has been celebrated nationally since 1974. At Our Lady of Peace and other local grade schools, the week kicks off registration for the upcoming school year. Hickey hopes to attract new parents by emphasizing the unique offerings of not only his school but also a Catholic education.

“The theme for Catholic Schools Week this year is ‘faith, academics, service,’ ” he said. “That’s what sets us apart.”

Nationally, the outlook for Catholic schools is bright. The National Catholic Education Association reports that 460 Catholic schools have opened across the county in the past 10 years, 95 of them in the Southeast. Despite well-publicized closings of Catholic schools in some dioceses in the U.S., every region of the country has experienced growth, according to data collected by the association from 2000 through the 2010-11 school year.

Locally, both the Diocese of Savannah and the Diocese of Charleston report drops in enrollment but say that declines are slowing. For the past several years, enrollment in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Savannah has dropped about 3 percent a year.

“What we’re seeing is that Augusta itself is actually up when you average the enrollment of all three schools,” said Chris Trott, the assistant superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Savannah.

Immaculate Conception, the parish school of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, is responsible for the majority of that growth – 28 percent. It now has 132 enrolled, up from 95 in the 2010-11 school year. St. Mary on the Hill School held steady at 435 students in both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 terms. Aquinas High School saw a 4 percent drop from the previous school year, with 261, down from 271 a year before.

“Overall, we’re not seeing huge drops anymore,” Trott said.

Several schools in the diocese are using a new marketing strategy that mines parish databases to connect directly with prospective parents.

“We know their name. We know their age and have been able to market our schools more effectively using that information,” he said.

Schools are also expanding their programming, which Trott said accounts for growth.

“Parents are discerning,” he said. “Parents want to know what kind of material do you use, what kind of technology do you offer.”

That certainly has been the case at Immaculate Conception, said Kathy Turner, the school’s director of development.

This year, the school added a banking program to teach students about money management, and a music program led by local musician Tara Scheyer. Next year, the school will offer language classes in Spanish and Latin.

“Every year, we’ve been able to add programs,” Turner said. “The quality of education we offer is better because of it.”

Turner also attributes the growth to the school’s new location. In 2009, Immaculate Conception moved out of its historic but run-down facilities into a newly renovated space next to the church’s offices. The move allowed for more bathrooms, better security, a larger stage and cafeteria, and a computer lab.

“We have ample space to grow and look forward to what the future will bring,” Turner said.

The best Catholic Schools Week events celebrate not only the accomplishments of students, but also the contributions of faculty, staffers and parents, said Peggy Wertz, the principal of St. Mary Help of Christians School in Aiken.

That’s why her school started the week with a family breakfast. All 230 students and their families were invited.

“They bring their younger siblings and older siblings who are now in high school,” Wertz said. “It really is a time for families.”

In addition to the prayer contest at Aquinas High School, students marked Catholic Schools Week by celebrating a Mass with Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer for the feast day of the school’s patron saint, St. Thomas Aquinas.

About 20 percent of the school’s students don’t come from Catholic homes but still chose an education at Aquinas, Principal Chris Paul said.

Students pay $7,195 a year to attend Aquinas, but 40 percent receive some sort of aid or scholarships to attend.

“It’s a sacrifice to send your children to Catholic school, so the economy has its impact,” Paul said. “We tell parents, ‘You want the best for your kids. Don’t assume you can’t afford it. Ask. We believe this education is worth it.’ ”

Catholic schools average a graduation rate of 99.4 percent, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Most also have opportunities for faith development that aren’t present in other schools, Paul said.

“We’re a place where they’re going to grow individually in their faith,” she said. “One hundred percent of our graduates last year went on to college. They are well-prepared for college and a career. They’re well prepared for life.”

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