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City numbers push area Catholic grade school enrollment up

Principal Candace Scheidt St. Thomas School with student Cheyenne Roe (6) one many Catholic schools thhave seen an increase enrollment

Principal Candace Scheidt of St. Thomas School, with student Cheyenne Roe (6), one of many Catholic schools that have seen an increase of enrollment in Chicago schools, Thursday, October 3rd, 2013, in Chicago. | Gary Middendorf/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:18AM

The number of kids going to Chicago area Catholic elementary schools inched up this year for the first time since 1965 — and turmoil within Chicago Public Schools may have helped fuel the increase.

Reversing a long-standing trend, the Archdiocese enrolled 99 more children this school year over last, for a total of 60,629 in Chicago, suburban Cook County and Lake County.

That’s still fewer kids than the 62,602 attending in 2009-2010. But the 99 extra kids still represent an increase — about a tenth of a percentage point — over last year’s 60,530 students attending the 207 Catholic elementary schools, the Archdiocese said.

Chicago clearly was driving the increase.

In the city, the number of students attending parochial elementary schools increased by more than 1,300 students over the past four years, from 29,343 in the 2009-10 school year to 30,687 this fall, according to the Archdiocese’s figures as of Tuesday.

That’s an increase of more than 4 percent over that four year period.

That bump in the city’s elementary enrollment was enough to push the Archdiocese’s total over the top, according to Ryan Blackburn, marketing director for the Archdiocese’s Catholic schools.

Superintendent Sister Mary Paul McCaughey said some of that city growth came from parents leaving or dodging CPS, which has recently closed dozens of schools and cut budgets in many neighborhood schools.

“Certainly it’s a factor,” she said, but explained, “This is our fourth year of growth in the city, so it isn’t purely what happened this spring.”

Also pushing numbers up: gentrification and a growth in Latino families. Just as CPS lost students in African-American neighborhoods, the Archdiocese did too, she said. Better academic curricula helped too: “The schools themselves are pretty good, they’re better local options,” she said.

The Archdiocese also increased financial help to families, including Big Shoulders Access Scholarships.

In Hyde Park at St. Thomas the Apostle School, Principal Candace Scheidt saw her enrollment increase steadily the last two years, from 135 students to 200. The pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school is aiming for 230 students next year, she said.

Scheidt said her school’s growth comes primarily from parents anxious about CPS school closings and safety issues. She also said many parents are seeking a better academic challenge for their children.

“CPS has larger classrooms,” she said. “Our average size is 18. We are able to provide more individual attention, and that’s appealing to families.”

The school, 5467 S. Woodlawn, charges an annual tuition of about $6,000, far less than some other private schools, but many parents still sacrifice to pay the amount, she said.

Alphonsus Academy and Center for the Arts, whose enrollment more than doubled over the last eight years from 220 to 450 students, picked up about 10 former CPS families over the last three years, principal Megan Stanton-Anderson said.

The shaky economy benefitted Alphonsus, sticking young parents who’d normally run to the suburbs for elementary school with condos they couldn’t sell, said Stanton-Anderson.

“Not gigantic, but we get some,” she said, adding that they migrated out of frustration with CPS. “Being outside that craziness” was worth the cost, she said.

Neighborhoods like Lakeview and Old Irving Park , which houses St. Viator, 4140 W. Addison that grew by 31 kids over last year — gained population overall, according to Viator principal Kathleen Kowalski.

As solid neighboring CPS schools such as Burley and Agassiz have seen their budgets cut, Alphonsus, 1439 W. Wellington, offers rich arts and music, a band and a choir, a drama teacher and a director of arts and culture whose job is to connect math and music, science and drama, Stanton-Anderson said.

CPS, which closed a record number of schools in June — 47 elementary and a high school program — doesn’t track where its students enroll once they report leaving the district.

“The majority of students — 91 percent — who attended under utilized, consolidated schools are enrolled in CPS today,” district spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in an email. “We can’t say with certainty how many former CPS students are currently enrolled in Catholic schools as students may enroll in other schools outside the district for multiple reasons.”

Overall, the number of students attending Catholic schools has stabilized at 60 percent of the archdiocese 244 schools, while Catholic elementary school enrollment in suburban Lake and Cook counties is on the rise, according to the Archdiocese. But the Archdiocese’ total school enrollment stands at about 84,000, a number that overall continues to decline year over year. High school enrollment is still falling, McCaughey said.

“It is about allowing more families more access, and getting great kids in great Catholic schools,” she said.


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