Diocese seeks to boost Catholic school enrollment

The following article is a reprint of Diocese seeks to boost Catholic school enrollment 

Alison DeAngelis/staff photo: St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Derry…

An institution that is hundreds of years old, steeped in history and tradition, is going to be taking some risks moving forward.

Superintendent David Thibault, who joined the Diocese of Manchester last year, said he is encouraging administrators and boards at the Diocese’s 26 schools to cast caution to the wind.

We need to be visionaries,” he said. “When I say ‘take a risk,’ I mean, ‘don’t be afraid to figure out where you want to go and try things to get there.’ We have to think differently.

Part of the Diocese’s new vision is increasing and updating its facilities, dropping tuition and bringing in administrators with a background in business — all risks which the leadership believes can combat dwindling enrollment.

Both locally and nationwide, Catholic school enrollment has been on a decline.

In the early 1960s, more than 5.2 million children attended Catholic school in the United States, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. By 1990, that number had more than halved. This past school year saw 1.8 million children attend Catholic schools nationwide.

“Historically, there was a feeling that if you wanted a good education, you sent your kids to Catholic school. That’s not necessarily the case anymore,” he said.

Now, Thibault and other Diocese officials say they are approaching their schools — including campuses in Derry, Salem and Plaistow — like a business.

The concept is relatively contemporary for an educational system that is based in texts thousands of years old and core principals of faith and character formation.

“If you think about Blockbuster video and Netflix, they were both doing the same thing. Which one is still around? Well, Blockbuster didn’t really change quick enough and Netflix did and took risks,” Thibault said.

Some Manchester Diocesean schools are making progress already, including St. Joseph Regional School in Keene, which has more than doubled its enrollment over the last 18 months. St. Joseph Regional Catholic School in Salem is also seeing promising movement in terms of enrollment, new principal Mary Croteau said.

I wouldn’t be in this chair if I didn’t think St. Joseph’s could take off. The numbers are going up, she said in a recent interview.

Croteau is one of several new administrators throughout the territory that has a strong business background, in addition to having been a Catholic school teacher.

One of the most immediate and noticeable changes local parents have noticed is a drop in tuition prices at St. Joseph in Salem. The Diocese also recently started a financial trust to fund need-based scholarships, which were previously unfunded gifts that took away from the school’s operating budget.

At the same time, the Diocese is planning to open three new schools over the next three years, including a high school in Keene. They are also growing their pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, which are in demand regionally and can be less expansive within the Diocese.

“That’s a fairly new conceptual idea for us. …. But, we’re seeing a lot of new families in pre-k and kindergarten,” said the Diocese’s Director of Enrollment Management Alison Mueller.

Though officials say there can be a misconception that Catholic education is expensive, a year of preschool generally costs between $5,000 and $6,000 dollars. At hundreds of dollars weekly, daycare center and other preschool programs can ring in at nearly triple that amount.

The hope is that strong preschool operations can act as a feeder program for elementary and junior high schools.

But, officials say that some things will never change.

With Catholic schools, our identity in Christ is our cornerstone. That will never change, Thibault said.