(Kristin Eberts) [Order this photo]
"We are bursting at the seams," said Notre Dame principal Brother David Migliorino.
The high school, Migliorino said, enrolled 528 students this fall, up 30 from last year. The freshman class counts 150 students.
"That's the largest class in the history of our school," Migliorino said. "We could take no more."
Notre Dame is building a new multi-purpose center and classroom addition to accommodate the growth.
Since Migliorino took the principal post about a dozen years ago, the high school's enrollment has grown by about 150 students, according to his figures.
Such growth seems to be an anomaly in a Catholic school system that nationally has seen enrollment precipitously decline over the past decade.
Between the 2000 and 2010 school years, 1,603 Catholic schools, nearly 20 percent, were reported closed or consolidated, according to the Arlington, Va.-based National Catholic Educational Association. The number of students declined by 533,697, about 20 percent, over the period, with elementary schools most seriously effected.
There were 2,119,341 students enrolled in Catholic schools nationally in the 2009-2010 school year, less than half of U.S. Catholic enrollment peak of 5.2 million students in the early 1960s, according to the association. The 1970s and 1980s saw a steep decline in both the number of schools and students. By 1990, there were about 2.5 million students, but enrollment rose slightly between the mid-1990s and 2000, despite continued closing of schools.
So what happened in the last decade?
Barbara Keebler, spokeswoman for the Catholic Educational Association, said enrollment has been hit by two critical factors: a prolonged slumping economy and the challenges of a demographic shift.
The Catholic school system, once largely concentrated in large urban areas, didn't keep pace with the shifting population move to the nation's suburbs, Keebler said.
"We have students where there are no school buildings and buildings where students no longer live," Keebler said.
And in tough economic times, a private education is often out of reach for a growing number of middle income earners, Keebler said.
"They want and value a Catholic education for their children, but during these economic times they've had to make choices and tuition has become an issue for them," she said.
Declining enrollment has not been affected by sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Keebler said, asserting parents and supporters of Catholic education distinguish between the reports of abuse and the quality education the school system offers.
The numbers point to steady to slight enrollment gains in Cape Girardeau's Catholic schools. St. Vincent de Paul School's enrollment was at 420 students when the school year began, according to Kay Glastetter, principal of the K-8 school. The numbers are up from about 360 students five years ago, she said.
"I think we'll be consistent. I don't think we're going to make any huge gains or losses" in enrollment in the coming years, Glastetter said.
St. Mary Cathedral School's enrollment was 256 students, exactly what it was last year. Carol Strattman, principal of the K-8 school, said the plan is to maintain enrollment and one class for each grade level.
Immaculate Conception School in Jackson reports enrollment this year down by 10 students. Total student count is 225 in kindergarten though eighth grade, with another 20 preschool students, according to principal Michele Huffman. She said the decline this year was the result of a couple of large families leaving the system.
Migliorino attributes Notre Dame's competitive tuition for much of the high school's enrollment growth. Notre Dame's tuition is $3,875, about $4,000 less than Catholic schools in the St. Louis system, he said.
Keebler said reversing the downward trends will require a renewed push for a national school voucher system, something the Catholic Educational Association is lobbying for. And archdioceses are doing a much better job in strategic planning to serve changing student populations, the spokeswoman said.
"We have a lot of work to do in that area, but we're raising awareness and telling stories where schools have been successful," like Cape Girardeau's Catholic school system, Keebler said.
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