Pandemic boosts N.H. Catholic school numbers

Monitor Staff
Published: 4/3/2021 3:00:34 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy on education, but for New Hampshire Catholic schools, the pandemic year has been one of the most successful school years they’ve seen in a while.

Nationwide, their stats aren’t as great. Catholic school enrollment across the U.S. for the 2020-2021 school year dropped 6.4% from the previous academic year – the largest single year decline in nearly 50 years, according to a report released in February by the National Catholic Educational Association. But here in New Hampshire, enrollment has actually risen by 2.3% – an increase of 119 students – making the Granite State one of 10 states that have seen an increase.

“We have been a part of the educational conversation in a way we never have before,” said Alison Mueller, the Diocese of Manchester’s director of marketing, enrollment, and development. “Families are talking about school and we are part of the conversation.”

At the same time, New Hampshire public schools have seen a general enrollment decline of 5% from the last academic year, from 171,940 in 2019-2020 to 163,364 in 2020-2021, which has some school officials worried about public school funding for next year, as it is directly tied to enrollment.

This is the first time in about 15 years that New Hampshire Catholic school enrollment has increased. Mueller said that lately, enrollment had been declining steadily by about 8% a year – a loss of about 150 to 200 students per year.

School and church officials credit this year’s rise to a transfer incentive offered by the Diocese of Manchester last summer, and also to the fact that Catholic schools were offering in-person learning during a time when most public schools were opting for hybrid or remote models.

Diocese Superintendent David Thibault announced in July 2020 that all New Hampshire Catholic schools would reopen fully in the fall, saying that the virtual instruction that happened that spring was “not ideal,” because parents were struggling to work while helping teach their kids, and students missed their friends. At the time, most New Hampshire public school districts were planning hybrid learning models for the fall that had kids in school two days a week, or fully remote models, something that not all families wanted.

“When we announced that we were returning to the classroom in July, we saw an immediate surge of interest,” Mueller said.

In addition, the Diocese offered an incentive program for students transferring from non-Catholic schools that gave elementary and middle school students a $1,000 tuition reduction for their first year and $500 for their second year. High school transfers were offered $2,000 off their first year and $1,000 off their second year.

The diocese even dubbed the initiative the “See You in Class!” campaign, highlighting its decision to fully reopen.

Mueller said that in the eight-week campaign incentive period, they enrolled nearly 500 students who were transferring from a non-Catholic school. By the fall, there were about 190 students on the waitlist.

In the Concord area, St. John Regional School enrolled 28 transfer students during that time period and Bishop Brady High School enrolled 18, according to Mueller.

At St. Catherine of Siena School in Manchester, enrollment increased by 60 students from the 2019-2020 to the 2020-2021 school year.

“It’s been a great year for our school due to the fact that we’ve been able to safely navigate COVID protocols and provide the in-person learning families are asking for,” said Katie Knight, principal of St. Catherine of Siena.

Both Knight and Mueller said in-person learning was a big draw for many of the families who transferred from other schools.

“I think that families were able to get a sense of normalcy that had been absent for a long time,” Mueller said. “I think that they were able to get a sense of assurance that their children were learning. They were able to provide some stability in the home because families who needed to work could return to work.”

The Diocese issued its own back-to-school guidance in July, which included COVID safety protocols like masks for adults and students who are old enough to wear them, six-feet of social distancing, health screenings and hand-washing, similar to the protocols used in New Hampshire public schools.

St. Catherine of Siena has had 5 COVID cases so far this year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 dashboard. The school stayed open the full year, although some specific pods of students had to go remote after exposures. In Concord, Bishop Brady has had 11 cases and St. John Regional has had 7, according to the dashboard.

Knight says she is glad her school did in-person learning this year and that she has had “no regrets” about coming back into the building.

“I think it was a very successful year,” Knight said. “Remote learning is difficult for teachers and students. I personally don’t believe kids are meant to be learning that way. I think the teachers, the families and the staff were on board with the protocols and we had no issues with anyone complying with them.”

New Hampshire Catholic School officials say this year’s enrollment increase gives them hope for the future, despite the rest of the country’s decline, partly because many of the students have indicated a willingness to stay beyond this pandemic year. According to a recent survey the diocese conducted of their new families, 91% of those who transferred this year plan to stay. At St. Catherine of Siena, 293 students are enrolled for next year, compared to 314 this year.

“We always refer to our school family. I firmly believe that is the appeal for families, whether they are Catholic or not,” Knight said. “It’s our community. I always say that once people are here, they are very likely to stay.”

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