LA Catholic schools finally growing again — but is it enough?
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