There is no doubt that Catholic schools have faced tremendous challenges and seen widespread change throughout the last century. Yet in the schools of the Diocese of Trenton, one thing has remained the same – the mission of providing a high quality education rooted in the values of the Gospel.
Today, more than 20,000 students attend the 49 Catholic schools located in Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties; 36 of which are elementary schools, eight are high schools, four are private schools and one is a special education school. They are among the more than 7,000 Catholic schools nationwide that currently educate 2.1 million students.
These numbers represent a significant decline from the peak period of Catholic education in the 1960s, when in excess of 5 million students were enrolled in more than 13,000 Catholic schools. But fewer students in the classroom is not the only change that Catholic schools have weathered.
Populations have shifted, resulting in vastly different communities than those that schools were originally built to serve. The decline in religious vocations has required lay teachers to replace the religious sisters and brothers who at one time accounted for nearly all Catholic school staff, which has translated to increased costs. And as the expense of education in all sectors increases, many families who wish to send their children to Catholic schools are simply unable to afford the cost.
The diocese has labored continuously, however, to counteract these and other challenges. Through a strategic planning effort, the diocese has worked to ensure Catholic schools continue as institutions that are academically excellent, financially viable and above all, distinctly Catholic.
The history of Catholic education in the United States dates back to the early 17th century, when the Catholic minority sought an alternative for their children to public schools, where anti-Catholic bias was not uncommon.
In 1852, bishops at the First Plenary Council of Baltimore listed among their decrees that every parish in the country should establish a parochial school. Two years later, the first Catholic school in Trenton, then part of the Diocese of Newark, was established in St. John Parish (now Sacred Heart).
As the number of Catholic immigrants to central New Jersey grew, more parishes were established and several new schools were opened. The Diocese of Trenton was created in 1881 and by 1890, it was home to 25 parochial schools. The number rose to 45 schools by 1909 and during the episcopate of Bishop Thomas J. Walsh, third Bishop of Trenton, the Catholic school population continued to soar throughout the 1920s. Under Bishop Walsh, 47 new parochial schools were built, 11 were expanded and 13 new high schools opened, with the student population leaping from 17,000 to 41,000.
After the Diocese of Camden was carved out of the Trenton Diocese, Catholic schools continued to thrive in the remaining eight counties. In the 1940s, enrollment grew by 40 percent, with 16 new religious communities coming to the diocese to teach the growing numbers of Catholic school students. During the “baby boom,” both public and private schools saw tremendous enrollment growth through the 1960s, with Catholic schools continuing to open or expand to meet the needs of the escalating population.
Although national trends saw a decline in school enrollment during the 70s and 80s, Catholic schools in the Trenton Diocese were still thriving. By the time the diocese celebrated its centennial in 1981, there were 60,000 students receiving a Catholic education. By the end of the year, the booming Catholic population was again divided, with four counties being extracted to create the Diocese of Metuchen.
But by the end of the 1980s, a major shift in education was beginning to take shape.
Catholic schools nationwide saw their enrollment numbers decrease by more than 50 percent from the peak period of the 60s, as families moved away from the cities where schools had been built and there were fewer children to educate in both the public and private sectors. As early as 1988, the diocese was beginning to assess the status of Catholic education and to anticipate the challenging times ahead.
In a pastoral letter on Catholic education that year, Bishop John C. Reiss addressed some of the changes that schools had experienced: a “vast reduction” in the number of religious sisters and brothers, the challenge of providing fair salaries for lay teachers and the escalating costs of maintaining buildings and keeping equipment up to date. He announced that steps were being taken, including the development of an education task force, to plan for the future and to seek solutions to financial hurdles that were arising.
The years that followed, however, brought even more change. The Trenton Diocese, much like the Catholic Church on a national scale, saw changes in the demographics of people in the pews, particularly a rising immigrant population. There was also more economic hardship, as areas that had once been booming industrial centers began to see more poverty in their communities.
The changes taking place in society not only impacted Catholic schools. With the baby boomers aging, younger generations waiting longer to have children and families with school-age children making up a smaller percentage of the population, a large number of once-filled public schools have been closed.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 117,108 school districts nationwide in 1939-1940 that provided elementary and secondary education, but by 2006-2007, that number had decreased to 13,862 – an 88 percent decline. During the same time period, the number of public elementary and secondary schools dropped from 247,127 to 98,793.
In 2009, New Jersey began consolidating some of the 26 districts that no longer had any open schools. Currently, 13 districts in the state have no remaining schools in operation, while many districts serve dwindling numbers of students.
Meanwhile, enrollment in Catholic schools throughout the diocese has continued on a slow decline over the past decade, with total enrollment decreasing by approximately 5,000 students in diocesan and private schools since 2001.
The advent of new technologies in the classroom has also had a significant impact on education, and for Catholic schools to remain competitive, they must keep up with public schools in the technology arena. But there’s a high cost involved, and in New Jersey, Catholic schools took a major hit when technology funding for non-public schools was cut from the state budget last year.
Overall, Catholic schools in the diocese have worked to keep costs reasonable, but the average tuition has increased from $3,482 to $4,146 since 2006. At the same time, however, the average cost of educating a single student jumped from $4,524 to $5,474, creating a wider gap that must be filled by parish subsidies and school fundraising efforts.
In order to address the needs of Catholic schools going forward, Bishop John M. Smith in 2005 began a strategic planning process for the schools of the Diocese of Trenton. With the assistance of Meitler Consultants, Inc., the diocese undertook a thorough study of its schools, the populations they served and their viability, which resulted in some schools being closed or merged with others to form regional schools.
The study also led to the publication of a document entitled “Committed to Excellence,” which outlined goals, objectives and action steps in all areas of education, ranging from marketing and enrollment efforts to leadership and governance to academic standards. The document called for all members of the Catholic community, regardless of their involvement with Catholic schools, to recognize their role in helping to support the continuing mission of Catholic education.
Schools were called upon to form marketing committees and, with the help of the Catholic Schools Office, to develop detailed plans for recruiting and retaining students. An emphasis was also placed on creating a long-range budget analysis, building capital reserve funds and ensuring the school’s financial stability.
An effort has also been made to make families aware that if the cost of Catholic education appears to be a barrier, assistance is available. Eligible families that demonstrate a need are able to receive up to one-half of the cost of tuition through the diocesan tuition assistance program. Funds are contributed for this purpose by parishes that do not currently have schools through the co-sponsorship program. In past years, this fund has provided $600,000 in assistance to elementary school students and $600,000 to high school students.
The Foundation for Student Achievement, a fundraising corporation designed to support Catholic education in the diocese, was established in 2007. The foundation offers grants not only for tuition assistance but also for technology enhancement, educational programs and professional development for teachers and staff.
In addition to their advantage of providing a values-based education centered in the teachings of the Catholic faith, the schools of the diocese have made a commitment to maintaining high academic standards. The Committed to Excellence document outlined among its objectives the development of diocesan curriculum guidelines, which would be continually updated, as well as the annual review of standardized test scores and a commitment to professional development for teachers and administrators.
For its elementary schools, the diocese uses the nationally recognized Terra Nova test, with students consistently scoring higher than the national averages in reading, language arts and mathematics. High school students have also exceeded national averages on standardized tests, indicating a high level of academic achievement at all grade levels in the diocese’s schools. At the same time, many public schools have struggled to maintain academic standards and to meet Adequate Yearly Progress requirements set forth by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Although the academic excellence and safe environment of Catholic schools has attracted some students of other faiths, 90 percent of those who currently attend Catholic schools in the diocese are Catholic. And the teaching of the faith is as much a component of all aspects of Catholic education today as it has ever been. Daily prayer, school liturgies, preparation for the sacraments, community service, education about the Catholic faith and the integration of faith-based morals and values are among the ingredients that give each school its distinct Catholic identity.
With demographic changes continuing in recent years and the overall economy struggling, Catholic schools in the diocese still face many challenges. Since becoming diocesan bishop in December, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., has made a firm commitment to ensuring that the legacy of Catholic education continues to remain strong in the Diocese of Trenton.
“Catholic education is critically important if we are going to hand on our Catholic faith not only to the next generation but to the present one as well,” Bishop O’Connell wrote in his first letter to the people of the diocese upon becoming bishop.[[In-content Ad]]
“We have the vision and the values, we have the curriculum and the committed service of dedicated faculty and staff. What we do not have are the enrollment numbers, the funding and the stability in both these things to easily support the future,” he added. “Catholic education must be a concern for us all, regardless of whether or not we have children in our Catholic schools and religious education programs. It is not an exaggeration to say that our future, as Church, depends upon it.”