Facing decades of declining enrollment, the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Greensburg and Pittsburgh find themselves trying to stem the tide to ensure thousands of remaining students receive a quality Catholic education.
At Greensburg, efforts include growing community awareness for its schools and fundraising to provide scholarships for students, while Pittsburgh has made a concerted move towards regionalizing its elementary schools for operational efficiency.
“In our elementary schools, we’re moving towards a regional governing model,” said Anna Torrance, secretary for education and evangelization at the Pittsburgh Diocese, which is in the midst of carrying out a reorganization plan to assemble its parishes and elementary schools under the direction of regional boards.
The first two regional boards, formed in Pittsburgh’s North Hills and in the city’s east neighborhoods and suburbs, were created in 2017 and 2018, respectively, to assess the viability of diocesan schools in the region and to keep them accessible and affordable for Catholic families.
Diocese officials say the regional model provides budget relief, comprehensive and uniform instruction programs, stabilized enrollment and tuition costs and effective use of facilities.
“It’s an opportunity to think strategically — not thinking from year to year but thinking long-term so schools are sustainable,” said Torrance, adding that the regional model has been adopted in other dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest.
“It’s a big paradigm change because schools have traditionally been parish-based.”
A third regional board, which will govern schools in the South Hills and Washington County, is to be established next summer.
The South Hills Regional Catholic Elementary Schools will gather 21 parishes and 14 schools, including John F. Kennedy Catholic in Washington, Madonna Catholic in Monongahela and St. Patrick in Canonsburg, under an advisory board comprising clergy and lay representatives of each parish, said Torrance.
A much smaller organization, the Greensburg Diocese oversees 12 schools in a four-county region. To superintendent of schools Dr. Maureen Marsteller, it has become imperative to accentuate those schools’ strengths for longevity in their communities.
At Geibel Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Connellsville, one of the diocese’s two high schools, the diocese launched an initiative in August that included community outreach strategies and new school branding to increase the school’s visibility.
Part of a $30,000 investment in Geibel Catholic by the diocese in an attempt to increase enrollment and improve educational offerings, the initiative included a plan that established an enrollment committee to promote the school in the community, designated a team of ambassadors to meet with elected officials and community leaders, enhanced daily communication with parents and the school community and improved alumni relations.
“Geibel needed more visibility because it became apparent that they had this amazing tradition of excellence there, but people weren’t thinking about (the school),” said Marsteller.
Greensburg Central Catholic, the diocese’s other high school, received a rebranding last year, in addition to receiving an increase in available financial aid for students. A combination of school improvements, community awareness and financial aid availability led to an increase in enrollment at the GCC this school year, Marsteller said.
She hopes efforts at Geibel will yield similar results.
The diocese recently concluded a multi-year technology upgrade at the school that included the installation of smart boards in every classroom, giving students the capability to learn with interactive technology in all subjects, and virtual reality technology to be utilized in various labs.
The diocese has had to find ways to provide educational opportunities while keeping tuition costs manageable for families.
For instance, the tuition at Geibel last year was $7,650 for high school students and $5,150 for junior high students.
In a major push to retain current students and draw new ones into the fold, the Greensburg Diocese undertook efforts in 2018 to raise scholarship funds through state tax credit programs, which resulted in the diocese starting 2019 with more than $1 million in available aid for families in Catholic schools for the first time in the organization’s 68-year history.
The diocese raised $800,000 between July 2018 and January 2019 by working with the Central Pennsylvania Scholarship Fund to exceed the $1 million mark.
The diocese’s goal, said Marsteller, was to “advance the cause of helping needy students, to help get the financial aid that parents need.
“We want to make sure that any child that wants to go to Catholic school is able to get that financial aid. The purpose is to make doing business with the Catholic schools easy for parents.”
The Greensburg Diocese reports a total of 677 students currently receive financial assistance through one of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit programs, which is nearly 31% of the diocese’s 2,195 students.
The diocese worked to solicit funds from businesses throughout its four-county service area through the state Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which offers tax credits to qualifying businesses in exchange for contributions to scholarship organizations, said Marsteller. Participating companies can designate their donations to be used for aid at schools of their choice. The gifts are used to benefit qualifying families based on need.
Marteller said the diocese experienced “incredible retention” in schools where additional financial aid was made available through the EITC program.
“Retention is a big thing. When people’s adverse circumstances come into play, they don’t want to have to take their child out of a private school, and we try to make sure they don’t have to,” she said.
The diocese relies on the generosity of Catholics from throughout the diocese to ensure that Catholic schools remain affordable to families that desire such an education.
In total, funds from the state’s tax credit programs, the diocese and its parishes provided more than $5.2 million to support Catholic schools in the 2017-18 fiscal year, helping to keep tuition costs from rising, the diocese said.
The Pittsburgh Diocese, said Torrance, diocesan education secretary, also relies on fundraising and subsidies to support school programs and student enrollment, utilizing EITC and other tax credit programs to provide student scholarships to those who qualify.
The diocese’s Stewardship Office is dedicated to educating about planned giving and the importance of financial aid in the Catholic school setting.
“As we move forward, it will become more and more important,” said Torrance. “The need is greater than the scholarship funding available, so we’re always trying to grow that money. There can’t be schools for just the affluent.”