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After years of decline, enrollment at area Catholic schools stabilizes

After years of sharp decline, enrollment in area Catholic schools has nearly leveled off, allowing the Archdiocese of Boston to avoid closing a school for the first year since 2001.

From 2004 to 2010, the Roman Catholic archdiocese closed more than 50 schools, but since then has only closed eight as enrollment has stabilized, according to a new report, “State of the Schools.”

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Last year, enrollment at the 119 Catholic schools in the greater Boston area dropped just 2 percent. In Boston, enrollment has risen slightly during the past five years.

“That’s exciting because Boston has so many choices,” said Chris Flieger, associate superintendent for academics and mission for the archdiocese. “Our schools held their own.”

Flieger said the schools are doing a better job retaining students and have seen enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds rise 30 percent since 2009.

In response, 15 new early education programs have opened since 2010, and five more are on the way.

“That’s a place we really fill a need,” Flieger said.

The expansion of early education programs provides a “demonstrated area of opportunity” for Catholic schools, the report found.

Archdiocese officials said the outlook for Catholic schools has markedly improved.

“Enrollment has begun to stabilize, there is a strategic plan in place to address long-term needs, and our students are excelling academically,” said Mary Moran, temporary administrator for Catholic schools.

The schools are also seeking to persuade more families who send their children to early education programs to keep them in Catholic schools, he said. More than 80 percent of 3-year-olds continue in Catholic schools, but just 68 percent of 4-year-olds.

“If we get a kid into first grade, they are likely to stay with us through sixth grade,” Flieger said.

Flieger said schools have made a focused effort to improve academically in recent years, helping them compete for students with other schools.

“The educational landscape, it’s much more competitive,” he said. “If we want to remain part of the whole educational picture, we need to show how good we are.”

Students in Catholic elementary schools outperform their public school peers on standardized tests, and high school students score higher on the SAT, the report found.

The schools also lose enrollment after middle school, as two-thirds of eighth-graders go on to Catholic high schools each year.

The archdiocese is also seeking to retain more high school students through graduation. Among freshmen who began in 2009, 80 percent completed their studies at the school.

“The big thing is retaining them,” Flieger said.

In that vein, Catholic schools are hoping to create a continuum that would give students a clear path from preschool to college.

Earlier this year, Cathedral High School, a Catholic prep school in the South End, created a partnership with Mission Grammar School in Roxbury, which eliminated grades 7-8 and guaranteed its students admission to Cathedral. The schools will remain independent, but will align coursework and teaching strategies.

More than 95 percent of students attend college, compared with 81 percent of Massachusetts public school students and 66 percent nationally. More than 93 percent attend four-year colleges, according to the study.

More than 40,000 students attended Catholic schools in and around Boston this year.

Nationally, Catholic school enrollment has dropped sharply over the past decade, mostly at the elementary school level. Between the 2004 and the 2014 school years, more than 1,800 schools were closed or consolidated, and the number of students dropped by 23 percent, according to the National Catholic Educational Association in Arlington, Va.

Catholic school enrollment peaked in the early 1960s with more than 5.2 million students. By 1990 that number had fallen to about 2.5 million, and today, there are less than 2 million.

In the Boston Archdiocese, the demographic makeup of the schools has shifted, with the percentage of nonwhite students rising from 21 to 30 percent since 2005, according to the report. Officials said they have made a point of reaching out to Hispanic families, part of a broader emphasis on recruiting students.

“We aren’t always great at telling our story,” Flieger acknowledged. “I think the foundation is there now. But the hard work has to continue.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.
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