NY Times: Some Catholic schools retooling for the wealthy

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Catholic schools have been bleeding enrollment and money for years, and many have been forced to close. But some, like St. Stephen of Hungary, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, have found a way to thrive — attracting a more affluent clientele by offering services and classes more commonly found in expensive private schools.

Selling points include small class sizes and extracurricular activities beginning in the youngest grades. And by often charging far less, these schools have been able to stabilize themselves and even grow.

“Our competition or our standard isn’t another good Catholic school,” said the Rev. Angelo Gambatese, the pastor at St. Stephen of Hungary church, which shares a building with the school. “It’s the best independent schools in Manhattan, and we intend to achieve the same level of performance that they do, academically, developmentally.”

If the neighborhood has welcomed a nurturing school that comes without sticker shock — tuition at St. Stephen starts under $8,000, less than a quarter of what some Manhattan schools charge — school leaders acknowledge that there has been a cost. Three years ago, 46 percent of the students received free or reduced lunch, in keeping with the Catholic Church’s mission of tending to the poorest; this year the number is down to 17 percent…

…In some states, Catholic schools have benefited from expansions of voucher programs that allow some students, usually those in poor neighborhoods, to attend private school at public expense. But other schools have taken the approach of St. Stephen, by reinventing themselves with new features to bring higher-income students into the fold.

St. Therese Catholic School in Seattle received financing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and from the Seton Partners, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, to convert itself into St. Therese Academy, a blended technology school. This fall, computers will be in every classroom to enable small-group learning, said Scott Hamilton, managing director of Seton Partners. Enrollment is expected to reach 185, up from 95.

In Tacoma, Wash., Holy Rosary, a struggling Catholic school, has converted itself into a dual language Spanish immersion program, in part to attract more affluent families. Enrollment is expected to be 150, up from 100.

Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, where 46 schools have been shuttered since 2006, praised the turnaround of St. Stephen, which was once designated for closing. “We are here to serve children,” Dr. McNiff said. “We are not looking to see their ethnicity or their socioeconomic background.”

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