Religious school resurgence
Parents seeking in-person learning are enrolling their kids in Catholic schools
When the Diocese of Manchester announced this summer that it would offer students five days of in-class instruction and a tuition discount for parents, Bob Pope of Londonderry looked into Catholic school as an option for his son Jack, 7, who will be going into second grade.
As the uncertainty of the upcoming school year lingered, the Pope family visited St. Francis of Assisi School in Litchfield. The school, which offers classes to students in Pre-K through sixth grade, has a smaller student population than Jack’s former public school, South School in Londonderry.
Pope said it had a homey, family feel and would be a much better option than facing the possibility of starting or moving to remote learning later on in the year.
To start, Londonderry is offering in-person and remote options for elementary and middle school students, and a hybrid or remote plan for high school students; however, students are required to wear masks and the district or state could opt to go remote if it deems it necessary to do so.
“We aren’t unhappy with South School; all of my kids have gone there. We figured this would be our best shot at Jack being able to have a normal school year,” Pope said.
Alison Mueller, director of marketing for the Diocese of Manchester, said there’s been an uptick in enrollment interest this year across the state. Parents looking for full-day, in-person classes are considering Catholic schools for the first time. This summer, all 18 Diocesan Catholic schools in New Hampshire have promised in-school starts, and socially distanced classes.
“Many of our older school buildings were built with large classrooms, which allow for appropriate desk distancing with ease. Schools have also taken out any extraneous materials from classrooms to maximize space as much as possible. Our current class size remains anywhere from 10-24 students,” she said.
Tuition is now less of a barrier for families, too, thanks to the Diocese’s Transfer Incentive Program, or TIP, that was announced in July and runs until Aug. 31. The TIP promises parents that any student in first through eighth grade transferring from a non-Catholic school will receive a $1,000 grant off tuition the first year and an additional $500 off the following year. Students in ninth through 12th grade transferring from a non-Catholic school will receive a $2,000 grant off their first year of tuition and $1,000 off their second year.
Mueller said that there are now waitlists for most of the schools, with some schools seeing a surge in enrollment applications and registrations showing strong transfer enrollment.
Although it’s possible for Catholic schools to go remote should a region or the state see an increase in coronavirus cases, Mueller said the Diocese has the flexibility to determine which classrooms, grades, or schools might go remote.
Catholic schools discontinued in-person learning when Gov. Chris Sununu shut down schools last March, but Mueller said they were not required to and did so in the interest of the common good. Right now, she said the Catholic schools recognize the need for teachers and students to be together.
“People are longing for normalcy right now. Everything is so uncertain,” Mueller said. “We have the latitude within the Catholic school system to be able to make changes. That independence has allowed us to be very flexible should anything happen and require us to make slight modifications.”
Aside from in-person classes, families have discovered that Catholic schools offer strong curricula, a refuge from bullying, and serve students with learning disabilities who thrive in smaller class settings. They also offer spiritual support during uncertain times, Mueller said.
“I’ve been really thinking that the uptick in enrollment and interest and what it says about a society and a community turning to faith-based education in the midst of a pandemic. What is at work, here? In an uncertain world, more people are turning to our schools and Christ,” she said.
Julie Healey, of Plaistow, began exploring the Catholic school option earlier this summer for her son Gabriel, 6, who will be entering first grade.
An alumna of St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School in Salem, Healey immediately thought of enrolling Gabriel at her former school, which serves children in grades Pre-K though 8. Although it will be a 30 to 40-minute drive from their home, Healey said the school is a familiar place that teaches good values.
“We aren’t a practicing religious family, but their values make kids want to be better people,” she said. ‘It’s the only private school I looked into.”
Healey works as a special education teacher in a neighboring district and will be providing remote education for her students this fall. Meeting the demands of both her students and her son would have been extremely difficult.
“In the spring there was a lot of crying, yelling…even though I am a teacher, I am not his teacher,” she said.
Gabriel also has selective mutism, Healey said, and last spring during online Zoom calls, he would not speak. Remote instruction was not an option for him this fall.
“In person, he can feel comfortable and open up, but remote was just terrible and he didn’t want to see himself on video. He’d hang up from the call and have a meltdown,” she said.
The tuition discount offered by the Diocese for transfer students brought annual tuition for Gabriel down to $5,500, Healey said, making it affordable and comparable to what she paid for public kindergarten last year. Most of all, she’s happy that Gabriel will get the instruction, supervision, and socialization he needs to be successful.
“I think 100% in-person instruction is important — and as a teacher, it’s important that their social-emotional needs are also met,” she said.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She is a longtime contributor to ParentingNH.