WHEELING - The desire to keep Catholic education a reality in West Virginia and East Ohio has many local Catholic leaders "hitting the books" to find the best possible way to operate the schools in difficult economic times and with enrollment challenges.
The Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Diocese of Steubenville have seen schools closed or reconfigured over the past few years in an effort to continue providing a Catholic education to their faithful.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston has 32 schools operating in 15 counties in West Virginia. In 1950, the diocese operated 18 high schools and 48 elementary schools, and student population peaked at 15,345 in 1960.
The Rev. Daniel Heusel addresses Belmont County parochial school students at a gathering at St. Mary’s School in St. Clairsville where faith-based traditions remain strong.
During that school year, only 23 percent of the diocese's 510 teachers were lay teachers. Today, 469 of 475 teachers in diocesan Catholic schools are lay.
In the current school year, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston's school system, overseen by the Most Rev. Michael J. Bransfield, bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, has 6,271 students, marking a 2.6 percent decrease from the previous year when there were 6,436 students statewide.
Bransfield said he and his staff are working hard to ensure a solid future for local Catholic schools.
What's the current state of Catholic education in the Upper Ohio Valley?
Much like every other school district in the region, the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Diocese of Steubenville are battling declining enrollment and rising costs. The local Catholic schools do provide a very good education for students, and, particularly in West Virginia, have made a commitment to introducing new educational technologies in the elementary and middle school levels.
Diocese of Wheeling Charleston Operates schools in 15 West Virginia Counties
Diocese of Steubenville operates schools in 13 East Ohio Counties
"Administering Catholic schools can be an intense effort often counted in thousands of hours and dollars, but it is a heroic and spiritually rewarding experience for our students, parents, pastors and principals," Bransfield said. "I appreciate those who are making valiant efforts to continue to support our 32 Catholic schools.
"When parents choose Catholic schools for their children, it is one of the best decisions they can make to positively affect their family's future. I humbly recognize the sacrifices they make when choosing a Catholic school. Also, I would be remiss if I did not thank our numerous benefactors, who enable us to keep our schools affordable."
One issue resolved late last year involved the future of Bishop Donahue High School in McMechen. Bransfield created a commission to consider the future of Bishop Donahue and Wheeling Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, particularly as it pertained to possible consolidation of the two at the current Central complex. Based on the commission's recommendations, Bransfield announced that both schools would remain open through 2011 with more study to follow if financial considerations become an issue.
Tuition has increased in West Virginia's Catholic schools in recent years, and some families are faced with difficult choices as to whether they can afford Catholic education. Since taking the helm more than five years ago, Bransfield has increased diocesan tuition assistance by 44 percent, which is in addition to local aid programs put in place by parishes and schools.
Bransfield said the diocese strives to work with families individually to create a budget that is practical and affordable for parents.
Diocese spokesman Bryan Minor said the diocese's 32 schools are "faring well, particularly when you consider some of the demographic and economic challenges we've experienced locally and regionally."
He said there have been areas of high growth in some schools and even steady enrollment despite difficult economic conditions in other areas of the state.
Minor said total student population has remained steady over the past 10 years, with no more than a 3 to 4 percent increase or decrease each year.
"One of the advantages in attending Catholic schools, in addition to the religious curriculum, is the increased use of educational technologies. A number of schools in our diocese have Smartboards in every classroom, while the use of other technology is commonplace across the curriculum," Minor said.
Catholic schools continue to favor family values within a rigorous curriculum. It is the same formula that has made Catholic schools successful for decades, officials noted.
Bransfield and diocesan school officials agree that the most difficult day-to-day operational challenges are running a school system in 15 counties across the entire state, plus funding issues.
"With improvements in communications technology, videoconferencing and regularly scheduled meetings between diocesan administration and parish and school leadership, the Catholic schools in the diocese continue to implement new curriculum concepts, instructional technologies and other innovative academic and spiritual programs focused on student growth. Being spread out also has its benefits, as a diverse school system can share ideas from different corners of the state," Minor added.
One of the largest practical concerns when operating Catholic schools is funding, Minor noted.
"The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, through the vision and leadership of Bishop Michael Bransfield, has been able to invest more than $14 million in capital projects in our schools over the past five years, an average of $2.9 million per year. This in addition to the $5.8 million that has been provided in annual operating support to our schools."
In the Diocese of Steubenville, officials noted that many schools throughout Ohio are facing challenges brought about by the current economic crisis, including the loss of local jobs, which has caused the out-migration of population.
In December, the diocese announced the closing of St. Joseph's Central School in Bridgeport.
"The decision was the outcome of a year-long study and discussion by a task force of religious and laypeople, established by Bishop R. Daniel Conlon to strengthen and foster the future of Catholic education in Belmont County. The task force was a response to enrollment figures and financial situations of the parochial schools in Belmont County, " said Paul D. Ward, director, Diocese of Steubenville Office of Christian Formation and Schools.
Ward said the diocese has experienced a drop in enrollment of approximately 4 percent, "not unlike that being experienced in all elementary and high schools in the area, as people leave the Ohio Valley in search of employment."
The Steubenville Diocese continues to tout the academic achievements and success of its students, accomplished in a safe and faith-based atmosphere. The diocese operates 14 schools from pre-kindergarten through high school. Franciscan University of Steubenville is part of the diocese. There are eight preschools and a private kindergarten in the 13-county parochial school system in East Ohio.
"Catholic schools throughout the state continue to provide the best primary and secondary education available. The Catholic schools of our diocese are no exception to this academic record of achievement," Ward commented.
"The challenge is making people more aware of our success story and then to make every effort to keep the Catholic school option an affordable choice for our families. To that end, Bishop R. Daniel Conlon established the Immaculate Heart Fund, which contributes to tuition assistance to qualifying families."
This year, the school system will be moving forward with implementing the recommendations of the Belmont County Catholic Schools Task Force. These include the creation of an ongoing development committee for the growth and development of the Catholic schools of Belmont County.
"We will also be strengthening efforts in public relations and marketing to get the good news out about the success of Catholic schools. At the local level, throughout the diocese, each school, especially with the support of parishes and donations, is continuing to upgrade its facilities and curriculum to keep pace with educational demands of the 21st century," Ward noted.
For example, thousands of dollars in renovations at St. John Central High School in Bellaire have been made and will continue as the school's capital campaign continues.
Also, the auditorium at Catholic Central High School in Steubenville is being renovated and new computers are being added to St. Sylvester Central School, Woodsfield, just to name a few.