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Clear the Path

Early last week, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) released a preview of its annual report on Catholic schools and enrollment. The headline was dire: in 2020, Catholic schools experienced the single largest drop in student population in fifty years. Catholic school enrollment has been declining for years: Since the turn of the 21st century, 3,011 Catholic schools have closed, and enrollment has dropped from 2.65 million to 1.63 million.* The NCEA report suggests that the pandemic has been the nail in the coffin for 209 schools in 2020. 

Last Thursday, Partnership Schools released its own enrollment report, sharing lessons learned from our experience of operating seven schools in New York City over the last seven years and two schools in Cleveland since last year. As Catholics, we believe parents are the primary educators of their children, and we have a responsibility to help every parent who wants a Catholic education for their child to access one. To do that, we must break through barriers that keep some families from being able to send their children to Catholic schools.

Financial obstacles are real, especially in a year of record unemployment. Cost is not, however, the only obstacle families face to enrolling their students with us. Catholic school leaders have also, over time, erected other barriers to entry that need to be cleared. These obstacles present hurdles to interested parents, and they ultimately prevent us from welcoming future saints to our classrooms. 

Mission Misaligned Mindsets

We believe that every child is made for greatness, in the image and likeness of God. We believe that we are made for each other. And we view our mission as fanning into a flame the gifts that God gave each child. If we exclude students who cannot afford high registration fees, or who have IEPs, or who had challenges at their previous school—are we really building the kingdom of God? Or are we building a kingdom of people who won’t challenge us or make us uncomfortable? 

If we are serious about our mission, and if we truly believe that our school offers an education in faith that we want to extend to every child, we must ask ourselves: Is our admission process aligned with the beliefs and mission that drive us? Does our process reflect our belief that every child is made for greatness? That each prospective student is made in the image and likeness of God? That we are made for each other?  Do our processes privilege the special claim that the poor have on us? And not just the economically poor, but all marginalized families?

Do we sing “All Are Welcome” with zeal at school Mass, but erect barriers that keep some kids out? 

Do we say “We are the St. Thomas family” and encourage students to think of school as a second home, but exclude their neighbors because they got in trouble at their last school, or they struggled academically, or they have a documented special need that would be hard for us to address? 

There are many idols in Catholic school enrollment. We must be willing to shatter them to fulfill our mission. 

Bureaucratic Barriers

At Partnership Schools, we approached this mission challenge with some technical research into our process and results. We have learned in New York that 87 percent of families who are not fully enrolled within one week of first inquiry will never join our community. In other words, if a parent inquires about our school and we cannot welcome them to the school family within seven days, their children will almost certainly be in another school in the fall. 

Processing time matters to our mission. So we ask: How can we reduce the time of the process? And: What do we require to enroll a student? Is it all essential? 

Common barriers to entry include excessively high registration fees, onerous paperwork, admission interviews, academic and behavior reports, and the submission of birth certificates, tax records, custody records, or notarized letters of child support. Taken together, these requirements form a high wall around our schools that many parents walk away from. 

There are three categories of barriers to entry in Catholic schools:

  • Compliance requirements;
  • Information on student background; and
  • Unnecessarily exclusive or simply unnecessary requirements.

First, there are some requirements that must be collected and filed as matters of legal or accreditation compliance. Gathering birth certificates, custody records, immunization records, and financial information for scholarships are all important for the responsible operation of a school. These items, however, need not be collected before welcoming a new student to the school community. They can be gathered as a separate step in the process, creating an additional touchpoint with new families after admission that can be an opportunity to deepen new relationships. 

Second, it is important to gather information that provides the school with a sense of a new student’s background and needs. Records must be requested from the previous school, and report cards and individual education plans (IEPs) must be on file. Again, these materials are important for teachers and leaders to review before the first day of school, but they are not necessary for enrollment. 

Some schools, however, will not accept students who have behavior incidents in their background, or children who were to be held back. For those who insist on requiring these materials, investigating behavior issues in a students’ background, or conducting interviews with students in order to, as it’s often put, “ensure a good culture fit,” we should interrogate how these practices align with our beliefs. 

These practices are typically framed as efforts to ensure that the school can fully serve the needs of every child. They are sometimes justified as a means to protect overworked and under-resourced teachers. Principals should ask: Are we confident enough about our capacity to form children that we can welcome students who have struggled elsewhere? If not, should we address that by excluding children or strengthening our school? Do we teach and celebrate reconciliation but turn children away because of something that happened in a different school? Do we teach our students the Gospels about the prodigal son, or the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, but also tell families that “we can’t fully meet your needs”?

Third, there are practices that are either unnecessarily exclusive or simply unnecessary. Admissions interviews pose two challenges. First, when school leaders insist on meeting every prospective student in person (or via Zoom), the ability to move a family from inquiry to enrollment in seven days becomes difficult. The ticking clock of the inquiry pipeline suggests that we should not let the principal’s calendar become a rate-determining step in moving a family from “interested” to “enrolled.” Interviews also put pressure on school leaders to make a decision based on a limited interaction and on children to perform in a high-stakes interaction with a stranger. Interviews are notoriously subject to confirmation bias, and they provide unnecessary opportunities for gatekeepers to exclude. 

If we want to turn the tide of enrollment losses to serve as many children as possible, we must interrogate how our enrollment processes either intentionally or effectively exclude people. Intentionally, by reviewing backgrounds or conducting interviews to “ensure a culture fit” or “fully meet a child’s needs,” and effectively, by insisting on requirements that are important for enrolled students but not essential to the application. 

Our goal should be to convert every parent inquiry to a student enrollment as quickly as possible—to live out our mission with urgency—and we can only do that if we take the approach of a polar icebreaker to our admissions process, breaking through momentum-halting structures, determining the clearest path from inquiry to enrollment, and accompanying parents along the way in a spirit of welcome that reflects our belief that every single child who comes to us is made for greatness, and our vocation is to ensure they flourish. 

Christian Dallavis is Associate Superintendent of Partnership Schools.

*An earlier version of this post included an error in Catholic school enrollment trends. The correct figure for Catholic school enrollment in 1999-2000 is 2.65 million.