Detroit-area Catholic schools look to future

“We’re a system of schools, not a school system”

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 suburban metro-Detroit.

"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 elementary-age students."

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.


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 area."

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 suburbs.

"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.