Mary Howell, Special to The Catholic Virginian

According to data compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association, between 1961 and 2001, nearly 50 percent of urban Catholic schools in the U.S. closed or merged with other schools. During the same period, student enrollment dropped from 5.2 million to 2.1 million, a consequence of changing demographics, the growth of suburbs, competition from charter schools, and fewer Catholics taking vows for religious life or entering the priesthood. 

But some parochial schools, which have shown they provide lasting benefits to high-need children and function as a cornerstone in their neighborhoods, are regaining strength. 

“The Importance of Our Urban Catholic Schools,” a Sept. 18 forum held at Virginia Commonwealth University, detailed success stories from two Diocese of Richmond schools which are providing those benefits and serving as that cornerstone, in part, because they have benefited from recently created incentive programs. 

Moderated by VCU President Emeritus Eugene Trani, Ph.D., the presentation was part of a fall speaker series organized by Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at VCU’s School of World Studies. Trani established that post in 2008, shortly after President George W. Bush convened the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools to call attention to the ongoing loss of private schools that had provided a path to success for inner-city students. 

“Since stepping down as president, Dr. Trani has been very active in the cause of Catholic education,” said Chesnut. “I wanted to provide a platform for him and his fellow speakers to share their important work with the VCU community, the diocese, and others with an interest in this topic.” 

“Catholic schools matter, not only as quality educational facilities but also as community contributors,” Trani said, referencing examples from the book, “Lost Community, Lost Classroom.”

More than 80 educators, students, and parochial education supporters gathered in Cabell Library to hear from Wanda Wallin, principal of All Saints Catholic School, Richmond, and Joseph Whitmore, principal of St. Joseph Catholic School, Petersburg.

Wallin explained that her school was formed in 1982 from the merger of two schools — St. Elizabeth and St. Paul. St. Patrick School merged into All Saints School, which is located in the building that had been the St. Paul School, in 2004.

“All Saints thrived until the recession 10 years ago. By 2008, enrollment had dropped to just over 100 students, half of its usual enrollment” she said. 

Determined to keep its doors open, teachers and staff agreed to temporary pay cuts. Guided by the school’s advisory board, and aided by donations from philanthropists and educational loans, the school benefited from two newly-established programs that combined to increase enrollment.

The first was the Segura Initiative, launched by Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo in 2010 to increase enrollment of Latino students. Two years later, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed legislation to establish Virginia’s Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC), which funded scholarships for students from low-income families in order that they could attend accredited private schools. 

Joyce Schreiber, director of the McMahon Parater Foundation for Education in the Richmond Diocese, explained that donors using the EISTC have 65 percent of their donation returned to them in Virginia tax credits. 

“A majority of students in our diocese’s urban schools require financial assistance, so this program has changed everything,” she said.

Referring to the Segura Initiative as “the future of our Church in the United States,” Trani noted the number of Latino students has grown by as much as 450 percent at Virginia’s urban Catholic schools. 

Today, All Saints’ enrollment is nearly 200 students, with a student body that is 55 percent African-American, 25 Latino and 20 percent Caucasian. 

“We are open today because of this ‘perfect storm’ of initiatives and new resources,” Wallin said. 

Whitmore noted he serves one of the diocese’s oldest schools, established in 1876, and the only Catholic school serving the Tri-Cities.

“We welcomed 40 new students this year and our 127 students are 37 percent Caucasian, 35 percent African-American and 28 percent Latino,” he said. “We use our diversity to create a positive community, teaching the whole child. Some 94 percent of our students need tuition support, and we could not fill that need without the support of the McMahon Parater (Scholarship) Foundation and other generous donors.”

All Saints and St. Joseph student bodies include a significant number of non-Catholics, creating an opportunity for evangelization. 

“As part of encouraging all of our students to be disciples of Christ,” Whitmore said, “we have them contribute 25 hours of public service to their communities.” 

Recognizing St. Joseph’s graduate and Petersburg Mayor Sam Parham, who was in the audience, Whitmore continued, “We need to keep telling the story of how Catholic schools support peacemaker virtues and provide quality education so we can better attract children of millennials and build our next generation of leaders.”

Trani concluded, “While Virginia’s urban Catholic schools are beating the national average, some legislators are seeking to end the tax credit program for private schools, and we must stay vigilant to preserve our gains.”