Amid a declining enrollment trend in Catholic education in Carbon and Schuylkill counties, Diocese of Allentown officials and community leaders met recently to map out a plan to ensure the brightest possible future for Catholic education in the region.
Bishop Alfred Schlert and leaders from the diocesan education department met with members of Catholic school boards, regional pastors, the diocesan Board of Education, and Catholic school principals to discuss the issue on April 27 at Marian High School.
At the meeting, there was general consensus for a regional, community-based approach. Two regional school boards will be formed, one to oversee Marian High School and its associated elementary schools, and one for Nativity High School and its associated elementary schools. The boards will replace existing boards at each individual school.
The regional school boards, made up primarily of community members, will begin to meet this summer to develop recommendations and seek community input on those recommendations before any final decisions are presented and reviewed by the Diocese.
The boards could consider such things as best use of existing and former school buildings, use of other available buildings, and how to increase enrollment at Catholic schools in the two counties.
Any recommendations that are ultimately adopted would not take effect until the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.
Enrollment in Catholic Schools in the region has declined by more than 30 percent in the last five years, and by nearly 70 percent since 2000.
In addition to declining enrollment, another challenge in the region is the diminishing ability of local parishes to pay the cost of operating local or regional elementary schools.
For example, the six parishes that operate Trinity Academy, Shenandoah, are no longer able to fund its operation. In a development completely unrelated to the April 27 meeting and the discussion about regional school boards, Trinity has concluded a study and will close at the end of this school year. Parents of students in the school were notified today.
Enrollment at the school has been on a steady downward trend. Five years ago there were 209 students, today there are 109, and only 84 are registered for next academic year.
Operating deficits at the school have grown each year, reaching $300,000 this year, and the school has exhausted its savings covering the losses.
The ability of the sponsoring parishes to contribute financially to the school has continued to decline, particularly in the past year due to lower weekly collections during the pandemic.
Parents were told of the enrollment and financial problems in a letter from the parishes in March. “The continued operation of the school, without a financially viable plan, could threaten the financial stability of our parishes,” the letter said.
“We explored many options to keep this school operating, but unfortunately there is no fiscally viable option,” said Dr. Brooke Tesché, Chancellor of Catholic Education.
“I recognize this is difficult for our students, parents, teachers and staff,” she said. “We hope that the two nearest Catholic schools in our diocese, Saint Jerome
Regional School in Tamaqua, and Assumption BVM School in Pottsville, can become a new home to these families.”
Tesché said parents who want their children to continue in Catholic school will receive an incentive in the form of a tuition continuation grant that can be utilized in another school in the Diocese of Allentown.
Elementary schools are operated by their sponsoring parishes, and not by the Diocese. The Diocese provided the parishes with the support and the evaluation tools they needed to determine the school’s future. After thorough study of the school’s viability, the pastors recommended the closure, it was endorsed by the diocesan Council of Priests and the diocesan Board of Education, and Bishop Schlert accepted the recommendation. The last day of school at Trinity Academy will be June 10, 2021.