The past, present and future of Catholic schools in southeast
Michigan paint three very distinct pictures, as struggling families and
shrinking enrollment lead to more school closures and more change.
"The economic status of Michigan right now is not good," Sister
Mary Gehringer, O.S.M., told Michigan Education Report. "Parents have lost their
jobs, or had to move away to find work, and so they can’t afford to keep their
kids in Catholic school."
Gehringer, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of
Detroit, said this trend that began in urban areas has now spread to parts of
"The auto industry and many of its related businesses are having
a rough time," she said. "Even if people don’t move away, they may stay in the
parish but opt out of paying for tuition."
The average tuition for an elementary school in the archdiocese
last year was about $2,400, according to Gehringer, while the average high
school tuition was almost $5,600. The state spends a minimum of $7,025 per
student in public schools.
"Our tuition levels are set on a local basis," Gehringer said.
"They are set by each parish, based on what they think is needed to run the
school, and what is appropriate for the area."
Gehringer said the schools in the archdiocese are considered a
"system of schools, not a school system," and therefore give parishes a great
deal of leeway in running their respective schools.
"There is a lot of local control, so to speak," Gehringer said,
referring to a term frequently used in discussions of public schools. "We don’t
get involved in personnel or the hiring and firing, although we will assist in
the interview process for administrator roles."
Some parishes have established endowments or scholarship funds,
which can help reduce the tuition burden for families on a needs-based formula,
while other parishes have chosen to be flexible on how the tuition is paid off,
be it in full, via installments or even through service hours.
The archdiocese currently has 115 schools, 22 of which are high
schools. Two years ago, it closed 17 schools, Gehringer said, most of them in
the city of Detroit. Since 2001, the archdiocese has seen about an 8 percent
drop in enrollment, from almost 49,000 down to just under 38,400.
"That’s really the case all across the country," Gehringer said.
"It’s not specific to Michigan."
Sister Dale McDonald, P.B.V.M., director of public policy for
the National Catholic Education Association, said Detroit mirrors what is
happening in many urban cities.
"This is being repeated in places like Chicago, New York,
Philadelphia, Camden," McDonald told Michigan Education Report. "It is a trend
that has developed and began to accelerate over the last five years. We’ve seen
a 13 percent drop in the number of schools and a 20 percent decrease in
According to the Council for American Private Education, a
report from the federal government released last March shows independent schools
nationwide saw enrollment drop about 4 percent, or 220,000 students, between
2001 and 2003, ending a 10-year span of growth. The number of independent
schools dropped 3 percent in that same two-year span, from 29,273 to 28,384.
EFFECT OF CHARTERS
As enrollment in Catholic schools has declined, both in the
Detroit area and across Michigan, enrollment in charter public schools has seen
a surge in enrollment. According to the Michigan Association of Public School
Academies, charters experienced a 13 percent increase in students last year
statewide, to more than 92,000, while the 41 charters in Detroit grew 23
percent, to more than 23,700 students. It is hard to show any direct correlation
between the two, but Gehringer thinks there may be anecdotal evidence.
"There have been parishes that closed their schools, and then to
make up for some lost revenue, they rent or lease that space out to a charter
school," she said. "Families in the area who might not even be Catholic, don’t
know the difference, all they know is that it is free (charter schools are tax
funded and cannot charge tuition). They see the cross on the building, the kids
in uniforms, and they sign up."
Gehringer best describes the future of Catholic schools by
addressing the past.
"It’s not like when I was growing up," she said. "Parents just
had it in mind that they were going to make that sacrifice. Now, there are a lot
of other options, not to mention that families are smaller."
The archdiocese is going through a process of re-evaluating how
it will best meet the education needs of parishioners and other parents with
what appear to be fewer resources.
"We intend to maintain offering a Catholic education in all
areas of the archdiocese," Gehringer said. "It may not be at every parish, but
it will be in every area."
Part of that decision will be including the Catholic mission of
service, particularly in low-income areas.
"We have some pockets in Detroit, where there are almost no
Catholics in our schools," Gehringer said. "If the Gospel tells us to reach out
to the poor, it cannot be only the Catholic poor. If they are seeking a good
education for their children, we have to ask ourselves ‘how can we provide it?’"
At this point, there are plans to build one new Catholic high
school in northern Macomb County, and reopen one previously closed in Detroit.
The Macomb County Regional Catholic High School group, a coalition made up of
people from seven area parishes, is in the process of raising $30 million. It
hopes to open the Austin Academy, with room for about 800 boys and girls, in the
fall of 2008.
"This has been in the works for a number of years," according to
Leonard Brillati, the group’s president. "About 25 percent of the support comes
from parents of school-aged children, but many of us are grandparents. We have a
wide variety of age groups who all want to support Catholic education in our
Of the seven supporting parishes, three have elementary schools.
High school students in the area attend various public schools, as well as other
Catholic high schools located in St. Clair, Oakland and Wayne counties.
The group obtained land for the school from the archdiocese, but
must raise the money on their own.
"They are conducting an aggressive campaign, but it will take a
while because they’re starting from scratch," Gehringer said. "The archdiocese
supports them, but we will not build it for them."
McDonald said other parts of the country, especially in the
Midwest and out east, face similar situations as people move from cities to
"We have kids where there are no buildings and buildings where
there are no kids," McDonald said. "And many of the buildings we have are quite
old. It’s expensive to heat them, and that adds to the cost for families."
Another group, formed after last year’s school closings in
Detroit, received a $50,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation to conduct a
feasibility study for a co-ed high school within the city.
"They desperately want to maintain a presence," Gehringer said.
"They are looking at establishing sponsorship, from religious communities and
foundations, but it takes a while."
The school could be based on what is known as the Cristo Rey
model, whereby students work at area businesses in jobs that pay 70 percent of
their tuition costs. Similar schools are operating in 10 urban areas nationwide. During the 2005-2006 school year, some 2,450 were enrolled in Cristo Rey schools in Cambridge, Mass., Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Lawrence, Mass., Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, Ore., Tucson and Waukegan, Ill. The organization expects as many as eight new schools to open in the coming year, including Sacramento and Kansas City.