The Buffalo Catholic Diocese's top education official visited Niagara County's remaining Catholic elementary and middle school Friday to offer support, boost morale and check progress as Catholic education continues to battle low enrollment.
Rosemary Henry, superintendent of schools for the Buffalo Catholic Diocese, visited St. Dominic Savio Middle School and the Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls, where she praised innovation as the key to keeping faith-based education available in Niagara County.
"We've got a lot of work to do to maintain the sustainability of each of our Catholic schools in Niagara County," Henry told The Buffalo News. "For Catholic education to continue to be strong, we've got to do programs that are unique."
That includes radical changes like Niagara Catholic High School's four-day school week.
Although Henry did not visit Niagara Catholic, located next to St. Dominic Savio, she praised the four-day schedule as a positive way to make Catholic schools stand out.
The only Catholic high school in Niagara County, Niagara Catholic unveiled a schedule without Mondays this year to attract new students. It is the first school in the state with the four-day schedule, which allows students to take classes at Niagara University on Mondays.
"That's what we need to continue to do -- create academic excellence with unique programming in partnership with our universities, Catholic colleges, hospitals and service agencies," Henry said.
The diocese oversees 70 schools and its 18,000 students consistently score above state averages and have a 98 percent college placement rate. However, enrollment is shrinking steadily.
It is a similar picture nationally. In 1965, roughly half of all Catholic children attended Catholic elementary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Today, the number is 15 percent.
As enrollment numbers continue to decline, the diocese must prepare for the possibility of moving to schools encompassing kindergarten through 12th grade. Currently, the Catholic Academy teaches children from kindergarten through fifth grade and St. Dominic teaches children in sixth through eighth grade.
Henry's visit punctuated the second full week for Catholic Academy -- created following the closing Prince of Peace and Our Lady of Mount Carmel schools.
St. Dominic Principal Rose Mary Buscaglia, who showed Henry around the school to meet teachers and watch classes in progress, said the visit demonstrated the "devotion" of the diocese to Catholic education in Niagara County.
As the economic downturn adds pressure to tuition-based schooling, the diocese is rejecting the idea of Catholic education as being "for the elite," Henry said. The diocese has provided $800,000 in need-based assistance to nearly 1,500 pupils with average family incomes of $29,500, she noted.
"We have a responsibility to make sure all families seeking Catholic education have the opportunity to enroll," she said. "Easier said than done, but we still have to hold onto that mission."