Georgia's Catholic schools are hoping to expand

"Those of us who have come from a Catholic background are certainly interested in having our children attend Catholic school," Mancini said. "It positions our children well for college. The quality of education is very rigorous."

Space is limited and in-demand as interest grows in metro Atlanta Catholic schools. Some parents believe the parochial education will give their kids a better shot at top colleges. Some want their kids to thrive in an environment that reinforces values taught at home. Others say a Catholic education is more affordable than most other private schools. Tuition averages $6,200, less than half as much as the comparable metro Atlanta independent school.

Catholic-educated mom Lynn Lynch is counting her blessings that she was able to get her kids into Queen of Angels Catholic School in Roswell, the Archdiocese of Atlanta's most crowded campus. The school has a wait list with more than 200 names.

“I had a difficult time getting in and we live right next door, and were one of the first parishioners of the church on that campus,” Lynch said. “I have so many friends who never got in. They have waited five or six years and applied every year.”

The demand for Catholic schools is growing mostly because the flock itself is increasing. A decade ago there were about 311,000 Catholics in the metro Atlanta area, according to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, now there are about 850,000.

Archdiocese of Atlanta officials say the population spike is prompting a need for new Catholic schools to open and others to expand. As schools celebrate national Catholic Schools Week through Saturday, some administrators will review applications for new students with the understanding that their campuses could grow.

The Archdiocese has 18 schools under its leadership and six independent Catholic schools educating a total of about 11,800 students, about 85 percent of whom are Catholic. The Archdiocese of Boston, on the other hand, has more than five times as many schools.

“We are rather a young Archdiocese,” said Diane Starkovich, Catholic schools' superintendent. “We don’t have a large school system, but we are continuing to feel the demand. We have a great number of families relocating here from the North who lived in an area where Catholic schools and Catholic churches were just a couple of miles apart. They want the same opportunities.”

A strategic plan written by researchers at The Catholic University of America suggests that the Archdiocese of Atlanta needs at least three more elementary schools. The campuses are recommended for growing Catholic communities in Flowery Branch, Douglasville and McDonough, where families are willing to pay at least $6,000 or more in tuition to support them. Tuition must help pay for staff salaries. Metro Atlanta's Catholic school classrooms are led by mostly lay teachers -- professionals with advanced degrees -- instead of nuns.

During the past 10 years, the Archdiocese sponsored the opening of four new elementary schools and two new high schools. The first high school established by the Archdiocese in 1958, St. Piux X, saw its population grow slightly this year to 1,071 students even with a tuition increase raising the cost of education to $10,500 per year. Almost all of its seniors go to college. Another popular high school, Marist School, an independent Catholic campus dating back to 1901, has a rush of students competing for early entrance to high school. It accepts seventh graders and has more than 1,000 students.

The next Archdiocese's schools to open, however, could take several years to build because of difficult economic times. The trend toward a growing Catholic school enrollment in metro Atlanta goes against the national landscape, which is seeing populations drop slightly. Other private schools in the metro area also have reported increased populations despite the sluggish economy.

"We see schools closing in areas where populations are declining or where there is great loss of jobs,” said Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association. "Atlanta is a happy surprise.”

Terris Hagan of Roswell is one of the newcomers. She attends Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell with brother John, a senior. They are Lutherans.

“We wanted our kids to get a great education,” said mom Allison Hagan. “It’s been a bonus to get that Catholic influence. Our children pray in the morning and in the evening. When I walk through the halls of their school you can hear a pin drop.”

Frank Moore, principal of Blessed Trinity, promises parents results. Ten Archdiocese schools have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence for their high standardized test scores.

"I tell parents, ‘You come to Blessed Trinity and you will get double your tuition back in scholarship offers,' " he says. "It’s the quality of education we bring. We have very high expectations in both academics and student conduct.”

Building more schools for Catholic families won't happen overnight. Flowery Branch's Prince of Peace Catholic Churchhas not yet built a sanctuary to house its growing congregation of 3,800 families. Parishioners say their prayers in the new parish hall, built in 2005. The parish launched an aggressive capital campaign to pay for the project.

"We are still in debt, the whole project was over $12 million," said Father Paul W. Berny. The parish still owes about $3.5 million. "Right now, as with most churches, we are struggling to make ends meet."

But once the economy improves Berny said he will organize an advisory team. “The question is which is the priority, the final worship space or the school?"

The Archdiocese's strategic plan also recommends a critical expansion for Queen of Angels, which is at capacity. The school of about 500 has had a wait list since it opened. Catholic students and siblings are given priority in enrollment.

On a recent day in religion class, Sean Lynch, 11, flailed his arm trying to be the first to answer a question about the installation of Catholic bishops. "I really can’t imagine life without a Catholic education,” he said later. “It’s a very nourishing environment. You get to learn about your faith. People treat you with respect. And teachers fit [lessons] to your abilities.”

The regional Catholic school draws students from several communities and would have to raise its own money to fund an expansion. Some Queen of Angels families, however, struggle just to pay for tuition. Financial aid increased to $200,000 to help those in need of assistance.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that they want to enlarge the school,” said principal Kathryn Wood. She is waiting on direction from the Archdiocese to move forward. The process could take years. “I would love to provide more space, though, for students with special needs.”

Some parents have chosen not to wait on the Archdiocese. They instead turn to religious orders to launch schools. Independent schools like Notre Dame Academy have opened on their own to meet the demand for Catholic education options. The Archdiocese endorses its religious program, but the school of 461 is affiliated with the Marist Order. Head of school Debra Orr organized the campus with the support of neighbors after one of her children couldn't get into the Catholic school of their choice.

“I needed my son in a Catholic school,” Orr said. “I come from a world where I believe that is my responsibility as a parent. Where I lived there weren’t a lot of options available without putting your 5-year-old in a car and driving an hour.”

Notre Dame is the first Catholic elementary school in the country to offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum for its pre-K through fifth-grade students. Its eighth graders have taken annual international class trips to countries like Italy and France to complement lessons on world history.

Mancini, Notre Dame's advancement director, said she researched carpools and buses before she chose a school to fit her daughter's needs. "My daughter got accepted at both St. Piux X and Blessed Trinity, but transportation was a big factor for us."

Mancini and other North Georgia parents say a new high school should also be on the drawing board next for the Archdiocese. Most of the campuses are in Atlanta..

Gary Hegarty, the school’s finance director, is dreading the commute he will have to make from Suwanee to get his rising ninth grader in a Catholic high school. He would like to see a new high school built in Gwinnett County. His family relocated from Ireland where there were plenty of Catholic schools in their community.

“The brand of a Catholic education is a great addition for a neighborhood,” he said. “Not to have a Catholic high school here, I think is a loss to the community.”

Archdiocese of Atlanta Catholic Schools

Next school year, new families will split $2.8 million in scholarships funded through the state's tax credit program.

18- Number of Archdiocesan schools (15 elementary, 3 secondary)

6- Number of independent Catholic schools

8,000 -- Number of Catholic schools nationwide

2 million -- Number of Catholic students nationwide

Source: Archdiocese of Atlanta, National Association of Independent Schools and National Catholic Educational Association

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