Catholic schools facing threat of closure with pandemic, declining enrollment

BOSTON — These are tough times for Catholic schools across the country. The National Catholic Education Association says that just under 100 schools so far this year have announced that they are closing their doors for good.

Schools like St. Jerome in Weymouth are among the schools that will no longer be accepting students. That decision has left John McCarthy wondering where he’ll go for the 7th grade.

“At first I didn’t really believe it,” he said. “Mostly, I was just pretty sad. I didn’t know what to do.”

The St. Jerome School has been educating children on the South Shore for 63 years. Gail McCarthy had three children, including John, attend the school.

“It was a surprise,” she said. “News spread pretty quickly and their reaction was the same as most: what can I do about it?”

Supporters are starting with standouts on busy Bridge Street and gathering signatures online. They say the school was still a vibrant institution and had a budget surplus.

The group now calling itself “Save SJS” has hired a lawyer who specializes in church law and has also filed an appeal with Cardinal O’Malley.

“If a school like that can close, then really, they can close any school that they want and it’s just really unfair and deceitfult,” said Sue Hannon, who is helping coordinate the group’s efforts.

Enrollment was falling, however. According to a spokesperson from the Boston Archdiocese, St. Jerome had 210 students in 2010. That number fell to 158 this school year and only 110 had signed up for the fall.

“The Catholic school enrollment hit the peak in the 1960s with close to six million students,” explained Melodie Wyttenbach, Executive Director of the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College. “Since then, we’ve seen a steady decline.”

Enrollment is now down to about two million students today. Wyttenbach says in recent years many students have migrated to charter schools which are free.

The pandemic hit Catholic schools with a one-two punch.

“Many families who once could afford to pay tuition are now seeing that they need to cut back on their own personal budgets,” explained Wyttenbach. “And with social distancing that was put into place, a number of different fundraisers or development events that were set to happen in the spring weren’t able to happen.”

Catholic schools tend to be very reliant on tuition to cover their operating expenses.

When a school closes, it creates a void in the entire community, while removing an academic option for children of all faiths, added Dr. Kevin Baxter of the National Catholic Education Association.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that we often have the biggest impact with those students who have the most risk in their lives, whether they’re coming from low income backgrounds, or broken homes, or troubled troubled family lives,” he said. “We tend to have a strong impact on those students. I think because of our strong sense of community.”

That spirit fuels the fire for Save SJC.

Hannan put two daughters through the school and is willing to fight for it today.

“We believe that the Archdiocese gave an unjust and immoral decision to close St. Jerome School, that we are a staple here, and the North Weymouth community needs us here,” Hannan said.

The Archdiocese recognizes the St. Jerome School was not in the red financially, but believes the school was not sustainable for the long term with such a small number of students in attendance.

The National Catholic Education Association is hoping that private schools will be included in the next wave of federal stimulus legislation.

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