When the time came to select her daughter’s elementary school, Inglewood resident Nichole Celistan searched for a campus that fostered community, a school where her child would thrive.
Class size, quality instruction and extracurricular activities were important. But more than a year into the pandemic that upended education, Celistan, who was raised Baptist and considers herself non-religious, turned in a direction she hadn’t expected. In 2021, her daughter Akira started first grade at St. Eugene Catholic school in South Los Angeles.
“When I researched local public and private schools, I of course checked the academics and test scores, but I also asked about the campus community,” Celistan said. “I just didn’t want my daughter to attend school but to feel welcomed, to grow spiritually and to develop special bonds that were broken during the pandemic.”
Celistan is among the parents of some 3,000 students who have decided to enroll their children in a school within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which takes in 255 elementary and high schools from Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The archdiocese has a modicum of reason to celebrate this academic year after decades of enrollment declines were accelerated by an alarming pandemic-fueled plunge that threatened many schools in one of the largest private education systems in the nation.
The archdiocese reported a 2.05% increase for this school year during its October survey, contributing to total growth of 4.58% in enrollment since June 2020.
Although the two-year upswing is encouraging, archdiocesan schools are not close to erasing the effects of the massive student exodus during the pandemic — with overall enrollment down 8.9% when compared with that of fall 2019. The plunge prompted the closure of 10 elementary schools and one high school in mostly working-class communities, including Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Hollywood and Pomona.
Much is at stake during this winter’s admission season as the pressure mounts on schools to intensify recruitment efforts in the hopes of regaining enrollment losses to keep teetering schools open. But parochial schools face the same enrollment challenges as public schools in Los Angeles and throughout the state: a smaller school-age population. In 2022, California public school enrollment dropped for the fifth year in a row — a decline of more than 110,000 students.
Archdiocese enrollment cratered at the end of the 2020-21 school year to 64,685 students, marking a 12.24% loss of about 9,000 students. Total losses mounted to almost 10,000 students since the pre-pandemic school year of 2018-19, when there were 74,404 students.
The pandemic drops were compounded by two decades of a cumulative 25% decline. In 2000, nearly 100,000 students attended Catholic schools.
Paul Escala, Los Angeles Archdiocese superintendent, said affordability has been at the heart of enrollment declines for years. But pandemic shutdowns, hardships and layoffs stung many of the school system’s working-class families — 70% of whom are low-income — forcing parents to pull their children out.
Even with scholarships, families have been unable to pay tuition — which ranges from $3,500 to $6,000 for elementary education in most parts of L.A. And free options abound at public and charter campuses as all schools compete for a shrinking number of school-age children.
The spiral prompted Catholic schools to reach out to families that had left as well as broaden their outreach.
“We saw communities, particularly those hardest hit, rally around their schools,” Escala said. “These were some of the few places during the pandemic where parents and students could connect, where spirituality and faith during a real dark time were cultivated.”
The Los Angeles gains were in line with an overall 2.73% private school one-year enrollment increase in Los Angeles County for the 2021-22 academic year, with 145,077 students attending non-public schools. National Catholic schools also gained 3.8% during the same school year, which marked the first enrollment boost in two decades.
John Beltramo, a lecturer at Santa Clara University and diocese director of San Jose and Monterey programs that develop Catholic school teachers, credits fast-acting dioceses around the country, including Los Angeles, for their success in getting “students back into the classroom much quicker than public schools.” He said those actions made Catholic schools “attractive to families that haven’t considered them.”
Yet that good news is not enough, he said.
“The questions shifted to, ‘OK, now what?’ and ‘How do we keep this going?’ ” Beltramo said. “This is still a very critical time for schools, and they need to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Only Catholic elementary schools experienced enrollment gains; the archdiocese’s 50 high schools lost about 500 students over the last two years.
Some of the elementary schools with the highest increases are in working-class communities, including St. Jerome School in Westchester (36%), Holy Spirit STEM Academy in Mid-City (27.74%), St. Eugene (23.2%) and St. Odilia (21.67%), both in South Los Angeles, and Sacred Heart Elementary School in Lincoln Heights (17.32%).
Celynda Kingsby, principal at St. Eugene, said her school, which charges $3,900 tuition for the first child, crashed from 207 students during the 2019-20 school year to 162 the following year.
Kingsby doubled down on efforts to promote “belonging, family and community” to families hit by the pandemic.
Kingsby gave her cell number to parents, posed for selfies with students and welcomed community members. She promotes weekly Mass and prayer discussions on a campus that is 60% non-Catholic. She has invited alumni to enroll their children and plans to speak about her school to community parent groups, such as the Mocha Moms organization, where Celistan served as a previous chapter president.
As of October, the efforts paid off as St. Eugene erased its deficit and now has 211 students enrolled. Kingsby said she’s “happy, but not satisfied.”
“We have to let the community know we’re here and we have something great to offer,” she said. “Otherwise, we may not be here one day.”
At St. Jerome in Westchester, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school, fifth-year Principal Tom MacDonald said his campus bounced back from its 2020-21 enrollment of 94 to 147 at the October enrollment check.
MacDonald pitches the school’s ratio of 12 to 14 students per class, which is difficult to find elsewhere. While the numbers were attractive, he said, bonding and spirituality resonated more with parents, who pay about $6,000 in tuition per child.
“Families tell me they feel isolated and broken from the pandemic and they want to reconnect,” MacDonald said. “We’re letting them know St. Jerome is the place to heal and feel this sense of family. If we can’t be that place, we’re in trouble.”
Although many of the biggest enrollment successes have taken place in Los Angeles Unified territory, where only 30% of likely voters polled in March thought positively of the 500,000-plus-student school district, there were also gains in highly competitive areas.
St. Bede is located in affluent La Cañada Flintridge, where La Cañada Unified was just ranked the fourth-best school district in California by Niche.
Since June 2021, the campus has grown 14% to its current total of 265 students. During that time, St. Bede opened a transitional kindergarten classroom and expanded foreign language classes from only two grades to a curriculum now spanning transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.
While each grade averages about 32 students, core subjects such as literature, math and science are split into two classes that serve 16 students each.
Although the academic push was important in enticing La Crescenta parents Krista and Justin Pagliuso, who enrolled their two school-age children in St. Bede from nearby high-performing public schools, community and faith were paramount.
“The religious component was … important and getting to know most classroom parents was really special,” Krista Pagliuso, 36, said.
She added, “When we looked at the public schools around us, they were very nice, but they were twice as big.”
Beltramo said the last 18 months offer Catholic schools a road map for recruitment success. Rather than compare campuses with public schools, they should promote what a public school can’t offer: faith and spirituality.
“Schools shouldn’t focus as much on secular goals but, rather, on building this sense of belonging,” he said.