U.S. Catholic schools see strong growth, forming children ‘who love Jesus Christ’

September 6, 2023 at 11:00 a.m.
A student is pictured looking over a book  in a file photo of a seventh-grade theology class at St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minn. (OSV News photo/courtesy St. Agnes School)
A student is pictured looking over a book in a file photo of a seventh-grade theology class at St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minn. (OSV News photo/courtesy St. Agnes School) (Handout)


As they open their doors for a new academic year, the nation’s Catholic schools are enjoying overall strong growth, along with a firm commitment to mission, experts told OSV News.

“Our school system has grown two years in a row,” said Lincoln Snyder, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Based in Leesburg, Virginia, the NCEA, an organization which traces its origins to a 1904 conference held in St. Louis, represents close to 140,000 Catholic educators serving 1.6 million students.

Snyder told OSV News that Catholic schools in the U.S. on balance experienced a bump in enrollment amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 3.8% growth from 2021-2022 and 0.3% growth during the 2022-2023 year.

In addition, “most retention rates are pretty high,” said Snyder. “Dioceses last year retained 93% to 98% of students who came (during) COVID.”

Snyder attributed sustained growth to factors that transcended the pandemic.

“By all indications, families who came to Catholic schools were very happy with the community and they established relationships” with the schools, he said. “Once people have children in a positive environment, they tend not to change it.”

At the same time, some Catholic schools saw an uptick in numbers due to straightforward demographic shifts, he said.

While declines “tended to be in the Northeast and the Midwest ... most of our growth was seen in southeastern Florida, and some in the (U.S.) Southwest,” said Snyder.

Making Catholic education accessible to students with disabilities also is key, said Andrew McLaughlin, secretary for elementary education at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“We are really pushing for full inclusion for children with disabilities,” said McLaughlin, whose schools have seen strong growth and – in contrast to national trends – little learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by standardized testing.

Along with expanding access, school administrators with whom OSV News spoke are focused on addressing both mental health and school security concerns.

While their students are not immune from national increases in mental health challenges – a trend highlighted by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a 2021 advisory – Catholic schools, equipped with psychological and spiritual resources, can provide a strongly supportive environment for students and families navigating such issues.

“Often we hear families say, ‘Thank God this happened in a Catholic school, because there is a community of care,’” said Rigg. “(The) community will rally around a family in crisis.”

But the biggest draw at many schools is the fundamental nature of Catholic education itself, said experts.

“When you create the type of Catholic culture that people want to be part of, you don’t have to worry about enrollment,” said Kevin Ferdinandt, headmaster of St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The preK-12 school draws students from “a really broad area,” functioning “a lot like a regional school,” he told OSV News.

Admitting that St. Agnes had “almost closed in 2007” due to financial struggles, Ferdinandt said the school revisited its roots – and bore fruit as a result.

“We’ve got a very clear mission, and we serve Catholic families that are really serious about engaging their kids in education, and making sure their kids get a chance to learn what we as Catholics really believe,” he said. “If we’re going to call ourselves a Catholic school and not be serious about teaching the faith ... then we’re just private schools with a religion department. We worked hard for a lot of years to establish an extraordinary student and faculty culture (of Catholic education), and with that came the success of our school.”

“Our first role as Catholic schools is forming disciples,” said Snyder. “We are a ministry of the Church, and we want to form children who love Jesus Christ.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X at @GinaJesseReina


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As they open their doors for a new academic year, the nation’s Catholic schools are enjoying overall strong growth, along with a firm commitment to mission, experts told OSV News.

“Our school system has grown two years in a row,” said Lincoln Snyder, president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Based in Leesburg, Virginia, the NCEA, an organization which traces its origins to a 1904 conference held in St. Louis, represents close to 140,000 Catholic educators serving 1.6 million students.

Snyder told OSV News that Catholic schools in the U.S. on balance experienced a bump in enrollment amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 3.8% growth from 2021-2022 and 0.3% growth during the 2022-2023 year.

In addition, “most retention rates are pretty high,” said Snyder. “Dioceses last year retained 93% to 98% of students who came (during) COVID.”

Snyder attributed sustained growth to factors that transcended the pandemic.

“By all indications, families who came to Catholic schools were very happy with the community and they established relationships” with the schools, he said. “Once people have children in a positive environment, they tend not to change it.”

At the same time, some Catholic schools saw an uptick in numbers due to straightforward demographic shifts, he said.

While declines “tended to be in the Northeast and the Midwest ... most of our growth was seen in southeastern Florida, and some in the (U.S.) Southwest,” said Snyder.

Making Catholic education accessible to students with disabilities also is key, said Andrew McLaughlin, secretary for elementary education at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

“We are really pushing for full inclusion for children with disabilities,” said McLaughlin, whose schools have seen strong growth and – in contrast to national trends – little learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by standardized testing.

Along with expanding access, school administrators with whom OSV News spoke are focused on addressing both mental health and school security concerns.

While their students are not immune from national increases in mental health challenges – a trend highlighted by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a 2021 advisory – Catholic schools, equipped with psychological and spiritual resources, can provide a strongly supportive environment for students and families navigating such issues.

“Often we hear families say, ‘Thank God this happened in a Catholic school, because there is a community of care,’” said Rigg. “(The) community will rally around a family in crisis.”

But the biggest draw at many schools is the fundamental nature of Catholic education itself, said experts.

“When you create the type of Catholic culture that people want to be part of, you don’t have to worry about enrollment,” said Kevin Ferdinandt, headmaster of St. Agnes School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The preK-12 school draws students from “a really broad area,” functioning “a lot like a regional school,” he told OSV News.

Admitting that St. Agnes had “almost closed in 2007” due to financial struggles, Ferdinandt said the school revisited its roots – and bore fruit as a result.

“We’ve got a very clear mission, and we serve Catholic families that are really serious about engaging their kids in education, and making sure their kids get a chance to learn what we as Catholics really believe,” he said. “If we’re going to call ourselves a Catholic school and not be serious about teaching the faith ... then we’re just private schools with a religion department. We worked hard for a lot of years to establish an extraordinary student and faculty culture (of Catholic education), and with that came the success of our school.”

“Our first role as Catholic schools is forming disciples,” said Snyder. “We are a ministry of the Church, and we want to form children who love Jesus Christ.”

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X at @GinaJesseReina

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