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Educators are urged, despite the stats, believe better days are ahead

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Principals, board members and other leaders connected to Catholic schools within the Diocese of Buffalo were brought together at Niagara University to learn more about the status of schools, how to work with fewer resources, and explore how to breathe new life into their respective schools.

Dr. Timothy Uhl, secretary of education for the diocese, presents data on Catholic school enrollment trends at the Education Summit held at Niagara University on Nov. 10. (Photo by Nicole Dzimira)

Guests were urged to believe that, despite the stats showing a steady decline in enrollment in Catholic schools since 1960, better days can be ahead for local Catholic education.

But the Nov. 10 education summit, presented by the Diocese of Buffalo’s Department of Catholic Schools, opened with a presentation of what were described as “brutal facts and trends.” 

Dr. Timothy Uhl, secretary of education for the diocese, presented data that shows an estimated 12,000 students are enrolled in Catholic schools throughout Western New York, elementary and high schools. His data dive reveals a downward trend not only in school attendance, but in religious participation.

“Every day, about 12,000 students attend Catholic schools. That’s 60,000 touches to a Catholic institution every week. That’s more than who go to Mass on Sunday,” Uhl said. “And if you add in the teachers, the staff, the parents, it’s a significant resource for our diocese. A typical Sunday across the diocese is now below 50,000. Registered households, since 2010, are down 18 to 19 percent. Contributing households, down 40 percent. Practicing households, down 30 percent. Average weekly attendance at Mass is down 60 percent in the Diocese of Buffalo.” 

Back in 1920, there were approximately 140 Catholic elementary schools in the diocese. That number grew to nearly 200 by the year 1960. But since then, the number of Catholic elementary schools has dwindled to 32. 

At the peak of Catholic school participation in 1960, an estimated 80,000 students were enrolled in Catholic elementary schools throughout the diocese. Now, there are fewer than 7,200 such students. There are also a handful of privately run Catholic elementary schools in the region, enrolling a total 628 students. The downward trend includes a 13 percent rate over the past five years, and a 5 percent decrease from one year ago, according to the data shared at the summit.

The numbers show a downward slide among Catholic high school enrollments. Over the past five years, the total number of high school students within the diocese has dropped by 21 percent from 4,907 in 2016-17 to 3,903 in the current academic year.   

“The problem is we don’t have enough students,” Uhl said. “We can’t pay the teachers what they deserve. We can’t charge enough tuition. My guess is most every school has all three problems. Some might only have two. But those are common problems.” 

The problem is not unique to Catholic schools, Uhl added. While the data he presented shows population increases in Erie and Niagara Counties – fueled in part by an influx of immigrants – many of the communities with large public school systems are projecting a decline in student enrollments over the next 10 years, including Buffalo, Williamsville, Kenmore and West Seneca. 

In Buffalo alone, according to the numbers, it is anticipated public school enrollment could drop by more than 15,000 people over the next 10 years. 

But despite these discouraging numbers, those in attendance were told that while the numbers suggest local Catholic schools have already seen their better days, it’s important to believe that better times are actually ahead, not in the past.

Dr. Kevin Baxter, from the Alliance for Catholic Education, delivers some hard facts about Catholic schools at the Education Summit. (Photo by Nicole Dzimira)

“You often talk to people and they’re ‘Gosh, the 1950s and 1960s. We had all the nuns.’ There’s a lot of ‘that was so much better then, than it is now.’ We have to believe that we’re truly visionary people to think about the fact that the future is brighter than the past,” said Dr. Kevin Baxter of the Alliance for Catholic Education, the summit’s keynote speaker. “The other thing that we can never, ever forget as people of faith is that we are resurrection people. We are people of the Paschal mystery, and the mystery is all about suffering and dying. And the suffering and dying part is really, really hard. But the wonderful thing about the Paschal mystery is it also has resurrection.”

It’s a pattern, according to Baxter, that the faithful see continuously in their individual lives and in their school and organizational lives. 

“We have to believe that those better days lie ahead,” he said. “If we lose that, then we run the risk of really losing everything. So, vision is extremely important.”

Vision and innovation were among the topics covered by Baxter. Solutions, he told the audience, won’t come quickly but Catholic educators can get there.

But how do school leaders focus on achieving those better days? Uhl says those leading the individual schools are the ones responsible for their school’s future.

“Your school is going to work if people at your school are determined to make it work,” Uhl said. “It’s really not going to come from me. There is no silver bullet. There is no magic pill. It is determination and hard work from people who are invested in their school that want to see it succeed.”

Guests from the schools were separated and seated apart, mingling among leaders from other schools, so that each table could engage in conversations sharing their situations and concerns. Those tables also engaged in breakout sessions during the afternoon portion of the summit. 

Baxter said the work to find solutions should not rest exclusively on the shoulders of principals but on other leadership sources including board members, teachers, and students.

“Every Catholic school in this country is sacred ground,” Baxter said. “Our parishes are sacred ground. And not only are we a resurrection people, we’re a people of miracles. And miracles are all about us every single day. We have to adjust our eyes sometimes to see them.”

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