Faced with a declining school-age population and mounting inflation, many Catholic schools in Prince George's County have dramatically increased tuition, beefed up recruiting efforts and added courses for slower students who perhaps would not have been admitted 10 years ago.
As a result, enrollment at most Catholic institutions has held steady while public school attendance has dropped dramatically. At Protestant-sponsored schools, the only other private schools in Prince George's County, enrollments have risen during the last decade. (See story, Page 2).
Private school attendance in Prince George's has thus grown from 18,322 students in 1968 to about 20,300 now, according to the Maryland Department of Education. In comparison, public school enrollment has decreased from 155,281 to 127,108 during the same period.
At Mount Calvary Catholic School in Forestville, the largest Catholic elementary school in the county, a parishioner who in 1968 paid $55 to send a child to school now pays $500. Though few schools have ordered increases this dramatic, threefold tuition hikes during the past 10 years are not unusual.
Enrollment at Calvary has dropped from 1,000 students in 1968 to 620 in 1979, due chiefly to the tuition increase and the declining number of school-age children.
Dr. Leonard DeFiore, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese of Washington, estimates that application for admission to Catholic elementary schools decreased by 20 to 25 percent in the last 10 years, while those at the secondary school level have dropped by 10 to 15 percent. DeFiore's office is a clearing house for applications to Catholic schools in metropolitan Washington.
While public schools have been able to compensate for declining enrollment by selectively closing schools, Catholic educators rarely have that option. Being largely independent, they instead seek ways of attracting students who would otherwise go to public schools or other private schools.
"Many of the (Catholic) schools are probably admitting students who may have deficiencies in various areas," said DeFiore. "It may be math, reading, or English. In the past, many of the students would have been rejected and probably ended up in public schools. Now quite a few can participate in special programs that help them to compensate for those deficiencies."
Elizabeth-Seton High School in Bladensburg has begun to admit slower students and has set up programs to help them. Three years ago, Seton added several courses designed especially for its provisional students, a group now comprising 8 percent of the student body who probably would not have been enrolled in past years.
"We realize that if we're serious about trying to give everybody an opportunity to get a Christian education, we can't admit only the brightest students," said Frances Glavan, assistant principal of the 810-student Catholic girls' school.
"There was once a time when we got only the creme-de-la-creme; now there just isn't enough creme-de-la-creme to go around," Glavan added.
Provisional students, upon entering ninth grade, sometimes take general math or consumer math instead of algebra I, and language arts instead of the first year of a foreign language.
Other Catholic schools have begun offering similar courses in recent years. Bishop McNamara High School offers remedial help to students having difficulty in various subjects, either during the summer or in ninth grade. Nearly a quarter of the student body took the remedial courses last summer.
About 10 percent of the McNamara's freshman students participate in a basic skills updating program, begun three years ago. It prepares them for more advanced courses. For example, a student may be required to take developmental algebra (a pre-algebra course) instead of algebra I or social studies instead of a foreign language in ninth grade.
"We can't turn the students away," said Walter Kramar, principal of McNamara. "These students may not have gotten in years ago, but we have come to realize that we can help them if we provide extra help for them."
McNamara, Seton and other Catholic schools also have begun to do something that was rarely even thought of 10 years ago -- recruit.
The schools, which because of their sound academic reputations seldom had to advertise for applicants in the past, now sponsor open houses once a year. In addition, many send representatives to the Catholic elementary schools to talk with eighth graders.
Moreover, Seton, which is the largest Catholic girls school in Prince George's, joined with several other Catholic secondary schools in the county to sponsor special high school nights at which eighth graders and their parents could hear 40-minute presentations by each school's representative, then ask questions.
To keep themselves financially afloat, many Catholic schools have also launched more aggressive fund-raising campaigns. At Seton, for example, three money-raising drives have already been held this year.
"I don't remember spending as much time on fund-raising when I first came here as I do now," said Glavan, who came to Seton in 1968 and now serves as coordinator of money-raising efforts.
Over the past four months, Seton students have invaded county neighborhoods to sell fruit, magazines, and jewelry.
The dwindling school-age population, more than anything else, has been the impetus for the more aggressive recruiting, the accomodation of students of more varied intellectual abilities, and for cranking up the money-raising machinery.
Despite the difficulty in keeping application levels up, most Catholic schools in Prince George's County have been able to stablize their enrollments.
From the numbers, it is clear that the decline in the school-age population has affected the public schools far more than the private schools.
In fact, some private schools have actually registered enrollment increases in the last several years.While the number of applications has decreased at DeMatha High School, enrollment has risen from 588 in 1970 to 878 in 1979. At Seton, enrollment increased from 753 in 1970 to 810 in 1979.
However, most Catholic schools, such as Bishop McNamara High, either have held steady or have experienced slight decreases in enrollment. McNamara enrollment decreased from about 700 in 1970 to 650 in 1979.
"We haven't really suffered, but we've definitely begun to feel the effects of declining enrollment," said Kramar, principal of McNamara. "There's no question. The fact that there is a declining school-age population has definitely kept private schools like McNamara on its toes."
Many students agreed that parents have continued to send their children to Catholic schools because discipline is more strict and students get more personal attention. Indeed, most of the county's Catholic schools have preserved conservative traditions and continue to emphasize discipline -- usually enrolling only boys or only girls, and often requiring them to wear uniforms.
"We are by no means turning people away in droves, but I would imagine that a great many parents feel that the public schools have lost control in the classroom," said Kramar. "You hear all of these things about crime, drugs, and suspensions. After a while, that stuff begins to takes its toll on parents and their perceptions of the schools."
Whether these perceptions are true or not, Catholic schools still must contend with the fact that the pool of potential students has become considerably smaller in recent years.
On the financial front, the Catholic schools have gotten help from parents and teachers in the fight to maintain a balanced budget in these times of high inflation.
For example, at Seton some parents work without pay as part-time secretaries and perform other services to help the school keep its payroll under control.
At DeMatha High, teachers accepted a salary freeze three years ago to help the school keep its budget balanced.
"Anyone who gets in the business of private education to make a profit has made a mistake," said John Moyland, DeMatha principal.
Despite the problems, Catholic schools are still held in esteem by parents disillusioned with public education.
Robert O. D. Thompson, a resident of the District of Columbia and the father of a student at Seton, echoed the sentiments of many Catholic parents when he said, "Not until the discipline problems in the public schools are solved will parent stop sending their kids to private schools.
"Parents want to give their kids the edge over other kids. If that means sending them to a Catholic school, that's exactly what they'll do."