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After a difficult 2020-2021 year for many Catholic schools, enrollment numbers are rebounding nationwide, according to data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

Overall, enrollment in Catholic schools in the U.S. is up from 1.63 million last year to 1.69 million this year, an increase of more than 3.5 percent, according to the NCEA.
Despite the increase, enrollment numbers do not appear to have yet reached 2019 levels, which saw 1.74 million students enrolled.

Locally speaking, the Diocese of San Bernardino’s Catholic schools are rebounding strongly after the height of the pandemic. “We did not close any schools during the pandemic and our diocese experienced one of the largest percentage enrollment increases in the nation,” said Austin Conley, Director of Advancement for Catholic Schools.

In the 2021-2022 school year, the Diocese’s Catholic schools have an enrollment of 7,026, which is an 18.5 percent increase over last year’s number of 5,929. This year’s enrollment is just shy of what it was before the pandemic in the 2019-2020 school year, when there were 7,227 students enrolled.

Below are some additional findings from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA)’s report on that nation’s Catholics schools.

1. Catholic elementary schools had a 5.8 percent increase in enrollment this year while secondary schools had a slight decline of 0.4 percent.

Elementary schools were impacted the most by the COVID-19 pandemic last year with an 8.1 percent decrease in enrollment. They have rebounded this year, increasing enrollment by 5.8 percent. Elementary school enrollment is largely seen as a predictor of future enrollment trends for secondary schools. Retention of students within Catholic school systems as they matriculate from elementary to secondary school is a key factor in Catholic secondary school viability. Increases in enrollment at the primary grade levels is a positive sign for long-term secondary school viability, even if there was a slight decline this year.

2. Pre-kindergarten enrollment increased by 33.5 percent from 2020-2021 to 2021-2022.

Enrollment of the youngest learners in Catholic schools was a driver of the overall Catholic elementary school increase. Almost every state had an increase in pre-kindergarten enrollment, with Utah (137 percent, 284 students) and California (134 percent, 6,187 students) showing the most significant increases.

Of the net gain of 62,000 students to Catholic schools from 2020-2021 to 2021-2022, 66 percent of that gain can be attributed to pre-kindergarten related enrollment. However, pre-kindergarten enrollment in 2021-2022 is still 2.7 percent lower than 2019-2020. It is promising that early childhood students have returned to Catholic schools but troubling that enrollment is still lower than pre-pandemic levels.

3. The lowest number of Catholic schools closed or consolidated in two decades at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

Excluding the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, on average, approximately 100 Catholic schools close or consolidate each year. At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, 71 Catholic schools closed or merged.

4. Overall Catholic school enrollment is 2.8 percent lower than 2019-2020.

Although 54 of the 175 Catholic school dioceses saw an increase of 1 percent or greater since 2019-2020, nationwide Catholic school enrollment is still lower than pre-pandemic levels. Catholic schools innovated throughout the last two years to meet the needs of their communities. They need to continue to adapt to those needs and use the momentum to retain students and recruit new students in the upcoming years to stabilize or continue to increase enrollment.

5. 89 percent of principals and 86 percent of teachers were retained from 2020-2021 to 2021-2022 school year.

For the first time, NCEA collected data around principal and teacher retention. Excluding those who retired, Catholic schools across the country had 89 percent of principals and 86 percent of teachers return to their school from last year. The relatively high retention amidst the added pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic indicates Catholic school teachers and principals feel supported.

However, Catholic schools should continue to examine teacher pay as on average it is almost 20 percent below what local public school districts pay. Further, Catholic schools should offer opportunities for professional and spiritual growth for their teachers and dioceses need to similarly support their principals.

For more on the NCEA and additional findings from their data brief, visit their website ncea.org.

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.