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Posted at 11:19 AM ET, 03/16/2012

Local Catholic schools respond to enrollment challenges

For schools everywhere, shifting demographics and dwindling enrollment can pose a major challenge. Some local suburban Catholic schools have learned that they must adapt to such changes — or face closure.

In February, the Archdiocese of Washington announced that St. Michael the Archangel school would close at the end of this academic year. The Silver Spring school, now serving about 150 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, was unable to raise enough money or increase enrollment to stay afloat.

“While it is hard to face the reality that our parish can no longer support an elementary school with the resources and programs our students deserve, please be assured that the Catholic schools close to us are ready to welcome our students this coming fall,” Monsignor Eddie Tolentino wrote in a letter to parents.

In 2010, two other local Catholic schools merged. St. Mark the Evangelist, in Hyattsville, and St. Camillus, in Silver Spring, joined forces and are now operating as one school: St. Francis International.

St. Francis is one of 98 archdiocesan and independent Catholic schools in the District and the Maryland suburbs of Montgomery, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties. The schools serve nearly 30,000 students.

Tobias Harkleroad, who was the principal at St. Camillus, now heads St. Francis. In a recent interview, he said that the archdiocese started consulting with St. Mark in 2009 in an effort to help the school. But St. Camillus, Harkleroad said, was struggling just as much. He said the effort to stay open can distract Catholic schools from their mission.

“If we’re constantly fighting for survival,” Harkleroad said, “we’re not going to be the vibrant place people want to send their kids.”

By 2009, St. Camillus was down to about 260 students, Harkleroad said, well below its capacity. The school created from the merger, St. Francis, is located in the St. Camillus building.

While some parents were concerned about the two schools coming together, others welcomed the change. “I wasn’t worried,” said Ukie Eko, who has a daughter in first grade and a son in eighth grade at St. Francis. “I knew it would only get better.”

The improvements started from the inside out. Volunteers tore up the green carpet that had blanketed the floor, replacing it with white and rainbow tiles. The doors were repainted, and the school began applying for grants to improve the battered playground equipment in the courtyard.

St. Francis serves more than 440 students from preschool to eighth grade – close to the 500 that St. Camillus crammed into a single hallway when it opened in 1954. While Harkleroad hopes enrollment will grow, he knows circumstances can change quickly.

“A lot of people in this area are transitioning from one place to another,” he said. “That is very difficult to adjust to, especially when you have a group of overworked teachers and administrators who would rather things stay the same.”

More than three quarters of St. Francis students have at least one parent who was born abroad. A walk through the hallways reveals posters in multiple languages and crosses colored with the flags of countries like Mexico, Peru and El Salvador.

In the 1990s, Harkleroad said, St. Camillus drew students mainly from the middle class. Now, though, the school serves more students who need financial aid. Tuition is $6,868 a year, but about 85 percent of students receive aid from either the parish or the archdiocese.

“We’re not trying to be an elitist school,” Harkleroad said. “It’s a real matter of social justice.”

Teacher Christopher Lesesne, who graduated from St. Camillus in 1990, said he is optimistic about St. Francis.

“The atmosphere has changed a lot,” he said. “It’s much brighter. It’s much more inviting.”

Matt Connolly, a journalism student at Northwestern University, recently completed a reporting fellowship at The Washington Post.

By Matt Connolly  |  11:19 AM ET, 03/16/2012

 
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