Closing Catholic Schools in Massachusetts Can Be Avoided

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The Archdiocese of Boston recently announced that after operating for 93 years, the Saint Clement School in Medford will be closing its doors at the end of this school year due to a persistent decline in enrollment.  That means a multitude of students who believed they would be following the thousands before them as Saint Clement’s graduates will instead be tearfully giving up the maroon for colors unknown.

Saint Clement High School is part of the Central Catholic League and I’ve enjoyed watching the players compete against my son’s school, Marian High School, in Framingham.  The school’s closing hits close to home.

Saint Clement’s closing does not represent an isolated example.  Enrollment in Boston Archdiocese schools has dropped 21 percent in a decade, from 51,046 in 2004 to 40151 in 2014. During the same period, the diocese closed 58 schools.   By 2016, enrollment was down to about 38,000.  According to a Boston Globe story, even the hallowed Boston College High School, isn’t exempt from the trend.  The all-boy school saw the number of applications for the next school year drop 40 percent from the previous year and the number of last fall’s new students were 17 percent lower from the prior fall. The concern among trustees is so significant, they are considering reversing its 154-year-old policy of being an all boy school.

The same thing is happening across the state – the Archdiocese of Springfield closed Saint Mark School in Pittsfield in 2015, leaving only three Catholic Schools in the Berkshires.

The Saint Clement School’s website boasts that 99 percent of its graduates go on to college – 90 percent to four-year schools.  Saint Clement School primarily serves students from Somerville and Medford, where 71 and 75 percent of graduates, respectively, go on to higher education, according to recent Department of Elementary and Secondary Education department data.  School in Boston’s Archdiocese have historically outpaced the Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts, and the nation in terms of academic performance, yet they now face a crisis in terms of enrollment.

Saint Clement’s is closing despite a population explosion in the area.  Somerville was among the top five communities with the highest population gains in the state from 2015 to 2016, according to a report by the State House News Service on US census statistics.  Yet demographic shifts and economic hurdles outweigh the population growth when it comes to driving school enrollment.

The primary cause in the decline are the tuition hikes impossible to avoid because of the changing status of teachers in Catholic schools.

According to Be Not Afraid” – a History of Catholic Education in Massachusetts, Catholic School closings are nothing new. In the 1960’s, under Cardinal Richard Cushing, there was considerable growth in the number of high schools in the archdiocese.  But the 1960’s and 1970’s also brought a decline in the number of men and women becoming priests and nuns.  As more and more lay people took on teaching roles in Catholic schools, the tuitions in the hundreds of dollars rather than in the thousands of dollars began to evaporate.  Even with partial financial aid from the school, tuition became out of reach for many families.  Additionally, many urban families moved to suburbs with higher-performing public schools with no tuition at all.

But while closings are nothing new, the decline in enrollment and the overall environment suggests that consolidation of schools will continue and that over the next decade, without additional supports, Catholic schools will continue to close.  That means fewer children will have school choice options available to give them a quality education and that district schools will not have to work so hard to compete.

It is now or never for Massachusetts policymakers to take action if the state’s Catholic schools are to survive and serve as robust options for urban youth.  Why not provide educational tax credits to low-income families who pay tuition for private schools?

Apart from any moral reasons for doing so, there is a financial reason for taking action.  To put the crisis into financial perspective, according to a 2009 Parents Alliance for Catholic Education study, if all the state’s Catholic schools were to close, taxpayers would be on the hook for an additional half a billion dollars annually to educate students currently enrolled in Catholic schools.

But the higher reason for policy makers to act is a moral one.  Our society has long been committed to providing pathways for low-income and minority children to rise economically.  The success rate of Catholic schools in educating these children and giving them both the academic credentials and internal drive to enter college is beyond reproach.  Providing education tax credits so more children could attend Catholic schools would be a meaningful way to preserve and strengthen this long-standing tradition.

3 replies
  1. Barbara Anthony
    Barbara Anthony says:

    I know lots of parochial schools have closed over these many decades. This one hits home as it was my school- grades 3 through 12. It was always small – 90 in my graduation class- and unique for its time as it was co-ed. The educational experience was exceptional. I am still a grammar nut and drive my co-workers crazy or subordinates crazy. I left school knowing about about all our nation’s wars, the names of all our states, math fundamentals, and 4 years of Latin plus French. We may not have had the fanciest equipment all the time, but we had one on one attention to nurture and grow our minds. You couldn’t slip through the cracks, no one went unnoticed and your parents were part of the deal too – mess up and there was no escape. The feeling of closeness and comraderie stays with me to this day. Our small class still stay in contact and remember those who are no longer with us. And, many of us will be going for a final walk with all alums through the high school on June 10. My parents like everyone else paid property taxes in Medford most of their lives, yet I always went to St. Clements and my sister went for 8 years. So, they helped support public school education although for the most part we went to parochial school which was practically free at the time. For generations, we in the Boston area were lucky that we had excellent parochial schools to turn to as a matter of choice when for whatever reason the pubic school system didn’t meet our needs. Even back when I graduated, almost two-thirds of my class when onto college. We are doctors lawyers, academics, law enforcement officials, engineers, artists, and independent business people. Interestingly, not one person joined and stayed in religious life. When I think back, it was not about religion. We were as bratty as any kids could be except most of us got caught sooner. And that alone may have saved a number of us for our better angels. I don’t know for sure what the answer is for our part of the country, but if nothing is done to preserve these opportunities for young people, there will be a price to pay in any number of ways.

  2. John Connelly
    John Connelly says:

    It was a good school. Some of the nuns were tough they knew how to handle things so nothing got out of hand. I remember after graduating, I saw one of the Sister’s that I had in high school. They went into the new style of wearing the veil instead of the traditional head
    garment. She mentioned that things had changed, when she took the bus no one offered her their seat. I reminded her that the change to the veil took away her identity that she was a nun. All of the kids in my family attended catholic school. My parents paid taxes yet none of the kids attended public school. I agree with the Pioneer Institute that there should be some sort of tax credit, whatever to keep catholic schools operating. If not the Mass taxpayers will be hit with over a half billion dollar cost to take care of the student population that will become public school students. Always have love for Monsignor Barry, (He died during our senior year), who built the parish/schools up over the years and the Sisters of St. Joseph who helped mold us into productive adults. Our Class ’67, is having a reunion this fall which was to include a tour of the High School. A sad year it will now be for our class and many others. All Probability the grammar/high school will be swooped up by Tufts
    University (like it is doing in surrounding neighborhoods) and remain tax exempt instead of aiding financially the municipalities. Hopefully the Anchor symbol of the school shall remain hoisted and continue the memory through the years.

  3. Ed Cutting
    Ed Cutting says:

    Yes there is a price/demand curve, but has anyone done any research to determine if that’s the only factor here???

    Let me suggest a few others worthy of inquiry — none of which involve money:

    1: Parish involvement. If your kid(s) aren’t going to a Catholic school, is there less guilt about not going to Mass, Confession, etc.?
    Isn’t Mass attendance down? Remember too that there is the CYO and other time commitments expected of parents.

    2: Uniforms. How many parents simply don’t want to fight with their children over this?

    3: Discipline in general. Catholic school expects parents to make their children behave. There aren’t IEPs for ODD…

    Hence while money is clearly an issue, I don’t think it is the only one. Even if Catholic schools were free, I don’t think we’d see circa-1960’s enrollment again as society has changed. I’d like to be wrong on this, but don’t think I am.

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