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Frustrated by Chicago Public Schools’ union battles, a growing number of weary parents enroll kids in city’s Catholic schools

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Casey Gallagher, 10, raises her hand in math class at St. Benedict Catholic School on Jan. 12, 2022, on Chicago's North Side. The Archdiocese of Chicago's elementary and high schools were busy fielding phone calls from parents this week, frustrated by the latest Chicago Public Schools versus Chicago Teachers Union standoff, hoping to enroll their children in one of the city's Catholic schools.

After enduring the hardships of Chicago Public Schools’ teachers strike in 2019, a delayed reopening of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and a seemingly endless stretch of remote learning, Pilsen resident Christina Castro decided last fall to transfer her three children to Catholic schools.

“The public school system was already so unpredictable, and once we were in a pandemic, it definitely wasn’t heading in a positive direction,” said Castro, 36.

She enrolled her two youngest children at St. Ann School, just a two-block walk from their home, and transferred her eldest daughter, a junior, to De La Salle Institute, a private Catholic high school on the city’s South Side.

“We received financial aid — my older daughter earned a merit scholarship — and all three of my kids are thriving in their new environment,” Castro said.

After the latest battle between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union led to canceled classes for 330,000 students, the phone lines at many of the city’s Catholic schools were jammed with calls this week from weary parents, inquiring how to enroll their children.

Greg Richmond, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools, said it’s too early to gauge the impact of the latest CPS shutdown on enrollment at the 157 archdiocesan-run schools in Cook and Lake counties, including 85 Catholic elementary schools and high schools in the city.

But in fall, months before the latest standoff between CPS and the CTU shuttered city schools for five days, the archdiocese schools reported a 5% jump in student enrollment — the first increase the school system has seen in 40 years.

“I know from talking with parents that there’s a lot of frustration right now,” Richmond said.

When families started moving their kids out of the public schools during the pandemic, he thought it was due in part to CPS and many suburban school districts remaining online, while Catholic schools fully reopened classrooms at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“We thought the growth might just be temporary, and families might check us out, and then leave when their public schools reopened, but now, we’re seeing that most of them are staying,” Richmond said.

Despite the recent resurgence in Catholic school enrollment, the pandemic has taken its toll. For the 2020-21 school year, student enrollment at the archdiocese schools declined by 8.2%, or about 5,600 students, archdiocese school officials said last February. The schools now enroll about 50,000 students.

Nationwide, as of February 2021, Catholic school enrollment dropped 6.4% during the pandemic — the largest single-year decline in nearly 50 years, according to officials at the National Catholic Educational Association.

The declines are likely because of the financial hardships, including unemployment, many families faced since the onset of the pandemic.

Still, officials at the archdiocese said this week they hope the enrollment growth this school year will continue its upward trend, especially given enhanced opportunities for financial aid.

The archdiocese raised more than $11.5 million through the Illinois Invest in Kids Tax Credit Scholarship Program to pay full tuition for 2,100 children from low-income families this year, and more than 4,700 children remain on the scholarship wait list.

Signed into law in 2017, the Illinois Invest in Kids Act allows those who contribute to the scholarship program to receive a credit of 75% of their donation toward their state income taxes, and allows donors to choose which non-public school receives the scholarship.

While tuition varies among schools, the average elementary school tuition is about $5,900, and between $9,000 and $15,000 for high schools. That is before financial aid, which archdiocese officials said is offered to families at all of its schools based upon need.

“As we still work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, our Catholic schools have become beacons of hope for families committed to in-person learning,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said in a December video message, adding that officials have seen “students thrive socially and emotionally and achieve noteworthy test score gains.”

As the mother of two students previously enrolled at Waters Elementary School, Angie McKinney said her family lived through both the 2019 CPS teachers strike and numerous pandemic-era interruptions to their children’s education.

“We all hated the remote learning, which seemed out of control, and when I had questions, I couldn’t get a response. ... It was a mess,” said McKinney, 42, who transferred her children, now in sixth and eighth grade, out of CPS and into her neighborhood Catholic school, St. Matthias School in Lincoln Square, halfway through the 2020-21 school year.

Between financial aid and budgeting, McKinney, who is a stay-at-home mom, said the family has figured out a way to pay the children’s private school tuition bills.

“I loved Waters, and all of the families there, but the Catholic school experience really resonates with me, and the sense of community is like a family, and so tightly knit,” McKinney said.

Back in Pilsen, Castro said after the recent CPS shutdown, she is hearing from friends who have grown increasingly weary of the ongoing battles, and are considering enrolling their children at St. Ann.

“I think there’s a lot of frustration with CPS, because they really dropped the ball, and they still have not been able to get it together,” Castro said.

“I knew it would be expensive to send three kids to private schools, but I thought, with faith, hope and prayer, we’ll figure it out, and we have,” she said.

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