Even as hundreds of Catholic schools across the nation are closing their doors and Montana’s public schools grapple with dropping enrollments, Catholic schools in Western Montana are enjoying unusual stability.
In Kalispell, the Roman Catholic school opened in 1917, in a two-story building on Main Street just a few blocks from the county’s original courthouse. Founded by the Sisters of Mercy from the Sacred Heart Convent in Iowa – the same nuns, who just a few years earlier, had started the town’s hospital – St. Matthew’s was a combination convent and boarding and grammar school.
For decades, most classes were taught by nuns and, by 1959, the original handful of students had ballooned to 300. But with declining enrollments in the 1970s, grades seven and eight were closed. “Over the years, there were definitely some difficult times,” Principal Gene Boyle said. “How they kept it going during the Depression, I can’t even imagine.”
But today, in a tumultuous time for many of its fellow parochial institutions, enrollment is up, the higher grades have returned, and St. Matthew’s – and the other Catholic schools in Western Montana – are bucking state and national trends.
“Why we’re seeing the opposite when these other schools are struggling, I’m not totally sure,” Patrick Haggarty, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Helena, said. “In some ways, it’s as mysterious as divinity itself to be honest with you.”
Nationally, a recent Catholic teacher’s strike and a report on the state of the religion’s schools – both timed to coincide with Pope Benedict XVI’s U.S. visit in mid-April – highlighted the challenges facing a steadily shrinking pool of Catholic schools.
Since 1990, more than 1,300 Roman Catholic schools have closed in the United States, mostly in big cities, according to the report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization. The reason cited in most cases is declining enrollment, making it difficult for schools that rely heavily on tuition to meet expenses.
There are 2.27 million students enrolled in Catholic schools nationwide this year — nearly 50 percent less than in 1965, when enrollment peaked at 4.4 million, the report said. And for every new school that opened last year, 43 of them in all, four schools closed, according to the figures.
There are now about 7,500 Catholic schools in the country; in 1960, there were 13,000.
The reasons for declining enrollment are varied, but primarily relate to demographic shifts and tuition increases. In many cases, as urban Catholics moved to the suburbs, city parishes – and consequently parish schools that relied, at least in part, on church funding – suffered. At the same time, tuition increased as enrollment dropped and higher-paid secular teachers replaced nuns and administrators, forcing more students out.
The parochial school’s budget woes worsened in April when 350 New York City Catholic school teachers went on strike, the day of the Pope’s arrival. While lay teachers come at a steep price compared to their predecessors who worked essentially for room and board, Catholic school teachers often make as little as half the wages of their public counterparts.
The national woes coupled with the fact that Montana’s public school enrollment has seen a precipitous decline – a decrease of more than 20,000 students since the state’s enrollment peak in 1996 – sets a foreboding atmosphere for local Catholic schools. In Kalispell, though, St. Matthew’s has weathered state and national downturns.
The school is celebrating its 90th-anniversary year and enjoying steady growth in enrollment numbers. When Boyle took over as St. Matthew’s principal in 1998, there were about 135 students, he said; today, the school boasts 253.
In fact, enrollment in the entire Diocese of Helena, which covers the western half of the state and includes two Catholic high schools and four elementary schools, is secure. The diocese’s grade schools have seen enrollment increases in each of the past five years, Haggarty said, and the high school enrollments have remained stable.
“Western Montana by itself – and in a large part, all of Montana – is seeing a decrease in school-aged children,” he said. “We’re grappling with how we’re going to handle larger enrollment.”
Boyle and Haggarty list several of the same reasons for Catholic school success in Western Montana: parents’ desire for their children to have faith-based education; a family environment, created by smaller schools and K-8 students sharing the same building; and volunteer and financial help from parents, teachers and Catholic church parishioners.
St. Matthew’s School benefits particularly from its relationship with the neighboring St. Matthew’s Parish. Catholic school budgets are essentially funded in three ways: tuition, fundraising and parish contributions. For the other schools in the diocese, parish contributions make up the smallest part of the total budget; but St. Matthew’s is a parish school, tying it directly to the local church which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the school’s budget, Boyle estimated.
It’s a setup that’s responsible, in part, for the closing of many of the city schools, but Boyle said it has given strength to St. Matthew’s.
“I think there’s an ownership that other parishes don’t necessarily feel for their schools,” he said. “I think that may be one of the keys to survival here; the church takes so much pride in the school that they help it endure through tough times.”
That’s not to say St. Matthew’s doesn’t have funding concerns. Keeping technology in the school up to date is a constant struggle, Boyle said, and teacher’s pay still hasn’t met the diocesan goal of 80 percent of the local public school average. St. Matthew’s teachers make about 60 percent of the salary at non-parochial schools.
“When you come into a Catholic school, you know from the start that you won’t make the same wages,” second-grade teacher Mary Wagner said. “But, there are opportunities here that I wouldn’t have anywhere else – the chance to bring faith into my teaching and to work in a caring, faith-based atmosphere. That makes the difference.”
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