By John J. Kennedy
Post-covid education results have not been good, according to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), showing declines in Reading and Math in public school fourth-eighth graders in nearly every state since 2019.
A bright spot in the NAEP report is Catholic schools in general, with higher scores than their public school cohort and the first enrollment increase (+4%) in two decades. Many had written-off Catholic schools. Yet these schools often do more with less, at fraction of what public school spends per pupil—with better student scores and outcomes and zero government financial support.
The piece highlights the growth at Catholic Academy of Bridgeport (CT), where enrollment increased +20% in two years. The piece shares 5 key learnings and innovations from our experience that can be helpful to other parochial schools seeking to grow and provide better educational choices for families.
Generally speaking, there is not a lot of good news in post-Covid education reports across the country. According to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), achievement in Reading and Math among public school fourth-eighth graders has dropped in nearly every state since 2019. The NAEP shares one bright spot in the U.S. educational landscape– the progress of Catholic schools in general. Our own school, the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, with over 900 Pre-K-8 students (40% non-Catholic) on four campuses in Bridgeport has flourished. What’s happening at this Academy could be a roadmap for other parochial schools as they seek to grow and provide even better educational choices for families.
Catholic schools on the rise
Catholic schools are having “a moment”. In fact, if all U.S. Catholic schools represented were its own state, their 1.6 million students would rank first in the nation across the NAEP Reading and Math tests among comparable fourth-eighth graders.1
Wait—Catholic schools? Aren’t we always reading about how they are closing left and right due to enrollment declines and can’t attract good teachers because of meager pay compared to public schools?
Catholic school enrollment grew during the pandemic. The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) reports that enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools increased by 62,000 students, about 4%, between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years. This was the highest one year increase on record and the first increase in two decades. Why? For one, Catholic schools remained open for business during the pandemic—over 92% of Catholic schools continued to teach in-person, compared to 43% of traditional public schools and 34% of charters.
Doing more with less
These outcomes are particularly impressive given that most Catholic schools do a lot more with less. The average tuition for K-8 Catholic schools is $5,300 (with zero state/federal assistance), about one-third what state governments spend per student in public schools.
Enrollment at the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport has increased 20% since the 2020-21 academic year after several years of decline. Academic results and student outcomes remain superior compared with the public schools—in Math and English scores and with high school and college matriculation. All this within in a very challenging backdrop in Bridgeport, one of our nation’s poorest communities in otherwise a very wealthy state. Notably, 85% of our families cannot afford the annual tuition of $5,200 and qualify for need-based financial aid; 83% of students come from families living below the poverty level.
Key learnings from Catholic Academy of Bridgeport
So what can other parochial PreK-8 schools learn from Catholic Academy of Bridgeport? While school environments are different across the country and being careful to avoid a “Mission Accomplished” trap, here are 5 key insights we have found to be difference-makers:
- Governance/leadership: Recruiting and retaining a strong Board is critical to gain outside perspectives and expertise in fund-raising, investments, marketing, educational collaboration, facilities and advocacy. Recruiting a strong Executive Director to lead the four campuses has been critical to allow the four Principals to focus more on their students’ educational formation and less on administrative matters.
- Marketing narrative and Enrollment training: Conducting research and focus groups with parents and prospects was important to understand the emotional drivers for seeking a better education for their children vs. the local public school options. With this input, the Academy developed the marketing theme and tagline of “Something More”, which holds promises differently for each family—safety, caring, faith-based or academic rigor. From this, we developed digital marketing plans to tell our story to varying and specific audiences. We trained our administrative staffs on best admissions practices and enhanced our software to track our growing enrollment pipeline. We learned to build relationships with the broader community to help raise awareness of and consideration for our school.
- Teacher compensation—Merit Pay: Catholic schools do not have to be the poor church mouse. Our Executive Director developed an innovative program which ties compensation to desired professional and student outcomes while improving teacher salaries, with accountability. Only a handful of schools in the country use such a model, incentivizing mission-driven results with competitive compensation.
- Development/fund-raising: Catholic schools receive zero funding from the government. So, we must raise close to $3 million each year for financial aid. Bake sales will not do. Our Board has developed innovative and consistent fund-raising campaigns, attracting many generous individual donors and Foundations. We have developed programs for funding, such as “Rising Stars”, which allows donors to provide scholarship funding and follow the progress of an individual or group of students. With our generous, mission-based donors, we have also further grown our endowment as another, more permanent source of scholarship funding.
- Advocacy/school choice: While school choice is not yet on the radar in Connecticut, the issue could be a great benefit to Catholic schools. The Wall Street Journal has reported extensively on the momentum of school choice in the U.S. Specifically, 31 states have enacted school choice policies, which empower parents to control how their child’s education is provided. Rather than send their children to a monopoly (often underperforming) school, parents should have access to tools like vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) to allow their children to be educated at the schools of their choice. State money set aside for education should follow the child, not the school system. Parents of parochial school students in more receptive states should advocate for more school choice for their tax dollars.
Midst the declines in education across the U.S. despite rising public expenditures, Catholic schools continue to do more with less, providing better student outcomes, particularly in our troubled inner-cities. The Catholic Academy of Bridgeport’s recent experiences provide learning and insight. There are many tools and techniques that parochial schools can deploy to become an even stronger and more viable education choice for those who value the “something more” they provide.
John J. Kennedy is on the Board of Catholic Academy of Bridgeport
1 “Amid the Pandemic, Progress in Catholic Schools”, Wall St. Journal, October 22, 2022
 “Catholic Schools’ Good Covid Year”, Wall St. Journal, February 18, 2022
 “Amid the Pandemic…”
 “School Choice is Sweeping the Nation from Florida to Utah”, Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2023