Catholic, Christian Schools Begin to See End of Dramatic Enrollment Declines

By Beth Loechler
Grand Rapids Press

August 17, 2008

There once was a time when most Catholics sent their children to Catholic schools. Tuition was minimal -- many of the schools were free or nearly free -- and classrooms were filled to overflowing.

In 1960, Catholic churches couldn't build schools fast enough to accommodate the growth. Nearly 50 years later, the schools face an entirely different challenge.

All Saints Academy librarian Linda Kozminski, left, and receptionist Judy Hardy look over school items no longer needed after four Catholic elementaries merged to form the academy on Diamond Avenue NE. The surplus supplies will be divided among other school programs and charities.
Photo by Rex Larsen

Nationwide, enrollment has dropped by half. Other religious schools, too, are shrinking, forcing leaders to hike tuition, curb costs and close buildings.

While pockets of success can be found in area private schools, most are struggling to balance budgets and fill classrooms. In both the Catholic and Christian systems in Grand Rapids, enrollment has dropped more than 30 percent since 1990.

Student enrollment at selected Catholic and Christian schools.

The Grand Rapids Diocese alone, which includes 34 elementary schools and four high schools in an eight-county area, has 3,000 fewer students than it did 18 years ago. That's equivalent to the entire student body of Byron Center or East Grand Rapids public schools."If we want to keep schools vibrant we've got to find new ways to address these problems," said Bernard Stanko, superintendent of Catholic elementary schools in the diocese. "The schools that will survive are the ones that have planned for the future."

In Grand Rapids' religious systems, schools are merging to stay alive. Other schools like Algoma Christian in Kent City and North Hills Classical Academy in Grand Rapids have evaluated their futures each spring for at least the last couple of years. Both have decided to open again in the fall.

"We're constantly assessing whether this is feasible," said North Hills Headmaster Peter VandeBrake.

The advent of charter schools in the mid-1990s sent thousands of private school children heading for the exits, but other factors contributed as well. Lawmakers also allowed children to attend public schools outside of their home district, giving parents another educational option. Home-schooling is on the rise. So is tuition. Families are smaller these days, and many are leaving economically depressed Michigan. Urban districts also have been shrinking as families move to the suburbs.

Marching in: Christine Jarecki brings her children -- from left, Carson, 10-year-old Addison and Kelsey -- to All Saints Academy to help get the consolidated Catholic elementary school ready and to deliver supplies. Carson, 4, and Kelsey, 8, will attend All Saints.
Photo by Rex Larsen

"If we were in it to make money, we'd quit," VandeBrake said. "But we're not. We're in it to produce life-long learners and good citizens and leaders for our world, so we're willing to keep struggling for a while."

Christian and Catholic school leaders predict enrollment will stabilize by about 2010, and they already see a leveling off. They attribute the last couple of years of losses to graduating classes replaced by significantly smaller kindergartens.

For example, 292 seniors graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School in June 2007. When school started three months later, 130 kindergartners began their education in the Christian system. That alone was a loss of 162 students.

"I've tracked a lot of Christian schools in the area," South Christian High School Principal Lawrence Plaisier said. "In the last few years we've gone down a bit, but as I look ahead at the K-8 numbers, it's going to stabilize. I think we've seen our biggest declines."

Spending and investing

Quite often, middle-class families are the ones that are leaving, Holland Christian Schools Superintendent Glenn Vos said. They earn too much to qualify for tuition assistance, but cannot afford to sink several thousand dollars into private schools.

"Demographically, that's where the bulk of our people are," Vos said. "They need to be assured we can stand next to them for the long term, not just give them a coupon to get in the door."

As enrollment declined, Holland Christian launched capital campaigns to renovate schools and even built a new elementary. The system spent about $50 million in the last decade "to get our facilities in shape so that won't be an issue for the generation to come," Vos said.

Going and growing

There are exceptions to the trend, particularly over the past few years.

Potter's House, a Christian K-12 school in Grand Rapids that gives priority to poor families, is at an all-time high of 466 students. While there is room in the high school, the elementary grades have waiting lists.

"I've never been more enthused and excited in my life," Superintendent John Booy said.

Ninety-five percent of the families at Potter's House receive tuition assistance. Some pay as little as $550 a year for Christian education for all of their children. The school is consistently supported by private donations large and small.

"Every year we have not known exactly where the money will come from, and every year God provides," Booy said.

Also, schools with Baptist roots -- NorthPointe Christian in Grand Rapids and Calvary Schools of Holland -- are attracting more students. Both took "Baptist" out of their name in recent years in the hope of building a broader base.

Calvary hopes to complete construction of a $1.4 million middle/high school this year. The school raised all the money before it started to build, Principal Paul Davis said.

It's a small school, but it works to burst the "Christian school bubble" by exposing middle and high school students to community service projects each Wednesday afternoon, Davis said.

Davis also attributes Calvary's success to small class sizes and a small school overall. It has one classroom in each grade. Projected K-12 enrollment this fall is 280.


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