Suzanne Alworth of Verona remembers the glory days of Catholic schools. She remembers classrooms packed with close to 40 children in blue-and-white plaid uniforms. She remembers the nuns who taught her at St. Cassian School in Upper Montclair. And she remembers the families of brothers and sisters and children and grandchildren who all attended Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair, where she graduated in 1979.
Thirty-five years later, Immaculate Conception is fighting to stay open. The school is $900,000 in debt, enrollment is less than half of the building’s capacity and the Archdiocese of Newark will close its doors if it can’t come up with a plan to boost enrollment and improve its finances, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
"It was a complete surprise when they decided to close the school," Alworth said. "I’m going to do everything I can to keep this school open because I believe in its mission."
Immaculate Conception is not alone. Catholic schools across the state and country are struggling. Goodness said the state’s largest diocese, the Archdiocese of Newark, closed four of its 70 elementary schools this year in its four counties — Hudson, Union, Bergen and Essex.
However, he said, the archdiocese is implementing a new program officials hope will prevent more closings.
Goodness said the four schools closed this year — St. Agnes School in Clark, Saints Mary and Elizabeth Academy in Linden, Blessed Pope John XXIII Academy in West Orange and Most Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Wallington — were not financially sound and could not keep their enrollment up for the archdiocese’s new "Lighting the Way" program, implemented this month.
This isn’t the biggest year for elementary school closings. In 2009, the archdiocese targeted 11 schools through mergers and attrition. Three of those schools closed. In 2010, the archdiocese closed six and in 2012 six more.
Other Catholic dioceses in New Jersey have faced the same problems. The Camden, Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton dioceses have collectively closed more than 20 schools in five years, according to diocese officials.
For many students and families, the closures and threat of closures have caused not only anxiety, but heartbreak.
Brianna White of Newark, who recently worked at a car wash and bake sale to raise money for Immaculate Conception, said all of her siblings went to the school. She said the small Catholic school environment helped build her confidence.
Brianna just finished her junior year at Immaculate Conception and doesn’t know what she’ll do if the school closes.
"I feel like as seniors, we shouldn’t have to be looking for another high school," she said. "We’ve gotten so close together. We are a fun, loving family."
Isauro Gutierrez of Passaic said he was very upset when Most Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Wallington, where he sent his 9-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, shut down in June. But by now, he said, his family is used to being Catholic school nomads.
The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus School, which archdiocese officials say received more than $3 million in support over the last decade, was the fourth Catholic school his daughter attended and the third for his son. His daughter attended Passaic Catholic Elementary School until it closed in 2008. He then sent his children to Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Passaic until it closed in 2010. He hoped St. Anthony in Passaic would be their last stop, but it closed in 2011.
"It’s hard for them, but it’s gotten to the point where they are used to it," he said. "It’s been frustrating for me and difficult because I can’t find a home for them."
Gutierrez is hoping the fifth time’s a charm with Saint Philip the Apostle Preparatory School in Clifton. Even so, he said he is researching other Catholic schools — just in case.
A 2013 Gallup poll shows that New Jersey has the second highest Catholic population in the country, about 44 percent. But even with such a large number of Catholics, the number of students in Catholic schools in the Newark archdiocese has declined more than 40 percent since 1999, according to the archdiocese.
Catholic elementary schools, according to Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research at the National Catholic Education Association, have taken a bigger hit than secondary schools. High schools, she explained, are more likely to be operated through religious orders or boards of trustees, so their funding is more tuition driven. She said the high schools also have a stronger hold on alumni who are likely to donate money that helps keep the doors open.
Enrollment in Catholic schools across the country has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, according to data from the National Catholic Education Association based in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, there were more than 5.2 million children enrolled in almost 13,000 Catholic schools. Today, there are fewer than 2 million children in fewer than 6,600 schools.
In the last decade, almost 1,900 Catholic schools across the country closed and almost 580,000 students moved out of the Catholic school system, said McDonald.
But not everyone has lost faith in the future of Catholic education in New Jersey.
Goodness, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, thinks its "Lighting the Way" program could be a sustainable model for Catholic elementary schools. The program will change the parish-school relationship to an across-the-archdiocese partnership, essentially pooling resources.
Right now, the financial burden of the elementary schools is on the parishes to which they are associated. With the new program, all parishes will contribute money to all of the Catholic parish elementary schools, regardless of whether the parishes have schools.
Margaret Dames, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the archdiocese is also planning to adjust its marketing strategy. She said they are beginning to emphasize the fact that all schools have Middle States accreditation and 13 have received Blue Ribbon recognition for high achievement.
"Our Catholic schools are on the cutting edge," Dames said. "We are just as good if not better than the other options."
Many parents and students say they still believe in the Catholic school mission.
John Bishop, a 1978 graduate of Immaculate Conception, is on a board to raise money and create a long-term plan
to boost enrollment at the school. Since June 10, the school has raised more than $287,000 through its gofundme.com webpage as of yesterday, passing the halfway mark to its $500,000 goal by July 15.
He said the school’s enrollment has gone up to 168 from its low point of 147 in 2012, so he thinks it can make a comeback.
"We’re putting kids into good schools like the University of Chicago and UNC," Bishop said. "It’s going to take some time, but in the last few years we have had a huge influx of alums. That’s been huge for us."