In the Spotlight

News & Features
Catholic School Resurgence in the Twin Cities
By Tim Pugmire
April 9, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the series Religion in Everyday Life

Traditional mainline churches have lost a quarter of their members in the last 25 years - in part, due to the defection of baby boomers, a generation dissatisfied with organized religion. While general church attendance is dropping, officials with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis say enrollment in Catholic schools is on the rise. In the Twin Cities, a new high school and two elementary schools are planned in fast-growing suburban communities. But enrollment is also booming for a few inner-city schools.

IN THE LATE 1950s, baby boomers began to fill up the school yards. Catholic education in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis peaked in 1959 with more than 150 schools. Back then, the schools were almost entirely staffed by nuns or priests, working for little pay. But while enrollment was peaking, the men and women entering religious vocations began declining. Parishes were forced to hire lay people and pay higher wages. Tuitions went up, and enrollment started to slide. More than 50 schools closed or merged in the '70s and '80s. Tom McCarver, director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese, says 1992 was the first time in 30 years that Catholic school enrollment began to increase. McCarver says the recent enrollment turn-around reflects more than the region's population growth.

McCarver: I think they're being attracted to the values that are being taught in Catholic schools. We have religious programs in every one of our schools, and people are opting to have their kids close to that.

The Archdiocese now has 36,000 students in 100 schools; that's nearly as many students as the state's third largest public school district, Anoka-Hennepin. McCarver says most of the 11 high schools are full. Cretin/Derham Hall in St. Paul has a freshmen waiting list of 250. Many elementary schools have waiting lists too. New schools are needed soon, especially in the suburbs.

Three Catholic parishes in Eagan have joined forces to buy 28 acres of land along Yankee Doodle Road, the future site of Faithful Shepherd Elementary School. The school will house more than 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade when it opens in two years. Margie Judd is among a group of parents in Eagan who've worked more than four years to convince church leaders and parishioners to back the $10 million project. Judd, a mother of two young children, says the school will mean a lot to her family.

Judd: We strongly believe in the Catholic values, Christian values. We teach them at home, we believe in them. We want a well-rounded education for our children. We also believe in academic excellence. We want to be able for our children to be able to talk about God on the playground or whether it's in their math class or their social studies class, and we just think they go hand-in-hand, and we never even thought of anything else.

Religious values and academic rigor won't come cheaply at the Eagan school. Tuition will cost nearly $3000 a year at Faithful Shepherd, considerably more than schools where parishes subsidize the school costs. But Judd says few parents are balking at the price. Another parent-driven project is underway to build an elementary school in Woodbury. And the first new Catholic high school in more than 30 years will be built in Victoria, a town in the southwest suburbs. The affluent suburbs are not the only hotspots for Catholic schools. A 100-year-old school in a poor Minneapolis neighborhood is also growing and plans an expansion to accommodate more students.

At Ascension Elementary school, first-graders wear matching uniforms as they sing in a music class. More than 200 students are in kindergarten through eighth grade, and there's a waiting list for most grades. The school will add one class to each grade over the next eight years. Teresa Ross sent two children to Ascension, then started teaching at the school. She says neighborhood parents are drawn to the school's Christian values.

Ross: They have figured out that Catholic schools teach the values that children need to learn to be productive citizens in this world. And also how to follow in the footsteps of Christ. We want to keep the morals. We want them to have these things and I think people have learned that.

Ascension survived the '70s and '80s - a time when many inner-city Catholic schools died - by adapting to its changing neighborhood. The school is largely poor, African American, and non-Catholic. In fact, 85 percent of the students come from other religious faiths. Principal Dorwatha Adderly says that doesn't change the ways things are taught at Ascension. Every student gets the same religious instruction.

Adderly: Every child takes the Catholic faith and every child participates in the devotions, every child goes to mass, every child is expected to pray at certain times of the day. The religion is infused into the entire day. From the announcements in the morning to the very end of the day.

Seeking to bring many denominations together under one roof, Adderly occasionally describes her school as one based on Christian values. She says the emphasis is on social justice, nonviolence, and hard work. Faith is the key. While public educators struggle to find the scientific solutions to failing students, Adderly relies openly on faith in God to help kids learn. She says the power of prayer can raise children's self-esteem and test scores.

Adderly: It's a comfort for many children and it's an encouragement to know that they can go to God and ask even for things they would never ask their parents for, or that they would never ask their teachers for. So, you find children fervently praying in classrooms and you find change taking place.

Tuition at Ascension is heavily subsidized by the parish and costs about a third of what parents will pay in Eagan. More than 70 percent of Ascension students get some financial help.

Officials with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis expect enrollment to keep growing. New education tax credits, expanded tax deductions, and privately-funded scholarship programs for low-income students could further boost enrollment in the central cities. Tom McCarver says the Catholic education office is considering a plan to reopen some closed schools. He says an inventory of vacant facilities may help determine where they will teach the next generation of Catholic students.