Miyako Soller-Pastor always figured her two children would attend Arlington public schools, but when she didn't see the school system represented at a recent education fair at the World Bank, she decided to get some information about the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. She left the fair with a DVD and a stack of materials about the diocese's seven Beltway-area elementary schools.
"Now I'm more interested to look at what they have to offer," said Soller-Pastor, 34, an information analyst at the World Bank.
Soller-Pastor, who has a 2- and a 4-year-old, said she admires the diocesan schools' "discipline, structure and emphasis on faith." In the coming months, she'll weigh those factors against the convenience, free transportation and community feel that she values in the public school system.
That's precisely the goal of the diocese's Metro Schools initiative, which was started about two years ago as an effort to stem declining enrollment at the diocese's seven K-8 schools inside the Beltway -- St. Rita and Queen of Apostles in Alexandria; St. Thomas More Cathedral School and St. Agnes, St. Ann and St. Charles in Arlington; and Corpus Christi in Falls Church.
Although enrollment at the 44 Catholic schools throughout the diocese has increased by about 25 percent since the 1996-97 school year, from 14,694 to 18,383, enrollment at the Metro Schools -- so called because they're inside the Beltway -- has declined from 2,143 to 2,095 in the same period.
This year, enrollment at the schools declined an average of three students per school. Diocesan Superintendent of Schools Timothy J. McNiff estimates that there are about 200 empty seats in classrooms this school year. Officials in the diocese -- which includes Prince William and 20 other counties and seven cities in Northern Virginia -- attribute the decline to the changing demographics of communities inside the Beltway. Many families with school-age children in Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church have less disposable income for school tuition than those in the outer suburbs. In addition, many families that can afford the tuition are often more transient, with jobs in the military or other work that keeps them in the area for just a year or two -- making enrollment in local public schools the easiest and most obvious choice for parents.
"There are still a lot of children that would desire Catholic education" if their parents knew more about it, McNiff said.
So last year the diocese hired Michael F. Vargo as assistant superintendent to lead the Metro Schools initiative. Vargo, who was stationed at the diocese's booth at the World Bank fair, said he hopes to increase enrollment in the Metro Schools by at least 100 students next year through the recruitment effort. Officials also hope to boost minority enrollment, particularly among Latinos, to better reflect the area's demographics.
To reach those goals, the diocese has adopted several strategies. For example, officials are taking advantage of the active real estate market by asking real estate agents to talk about Catholic schools when they tell clients about educational options in the area. Vargo hosted an open house in February that drew about two dozen real estate agents and is planning others.
The diocese is also promoting its Operation Guardian Angel program when pitching its schools to members of the military, government and diplomatic employees.
The plan, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, matches schoolchildren in the diocese with host families that live within walking distance of the students' schools. The plan facilitates the exchange of medical information and release forms among those who participate. In the event of another terrorist attack or emergency that could separate students from their families, the hosts would have the authority to pick up the children from school -- a comfort to parents who work at the Pentagon and other sensitive government or military sites.
In addition to trying to lure newcomers to the area, the diocese is reaching out to current parishioners, especially young families and minorities who would like to send their children to Catholic schools but think they can't afford the tuition. "We remind them we have these wonderful schools in the area where they live," said Vargo, who often uses his fluent Spanish to spread the word about the Catholic school system on radio and television. "Many of them don't know there is financial aid available."
The diocese offers about $1 million a year in tuition assistance, of which at least $225,000 is earmarked for the diocese's Metro Schools. Additional assistance is provided by individual parishes, and the diocese has collected more than $5 million of the $10 million pledged to establish a tuition endowment. The interest will go toward scholarships. About a quarter of students enrolled in the diocese's Metro Schools receive financial aid. Additional discounts are available for families enrolling multiple children. Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde touts the benefits of a Catholic education, saying it can nourish a child intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
"If you have a very complete and solid educational system you enable a person to grow," said Loverde, who is a product of Catholic schooling and a former Catholic school teacher. "There's no better gift that parents can give to their children than provide them with a Catholic education. . . . I would like to invite people who may not have thought of it to explore it."
Ernesto Lopez might accept the invitation. The father of two receives an education allowance through his job at the International Monetary Fund. He attended private schools in his native Colombia and was impressed with the diocese's presentation at the World Bank education fair.
"It sounded similar to my personal experience," Lopez said.
Mary West, principal of Queen of Apostles, said the schools can be appealing not just to Catholics but to all parents seeking a "values-based" -- as opposed to secular -- education for their children.
"We look upon the parents as the primary educators of their children," said West, whose school is about 90 percent Catholic but also has Protestant, Buddhist and Muslim students. "The values they hold dear are going to be put forward in the school."