As Cleveland schools face pandemic exodus, some Catholic schools are growing

As Cleveland schools continue with remote learning, the district has experienced a pandemic exodus—2,252 students left between October 2019 and October 2020. Some parents are transferring their children to private Catholic schools for a strictly in-person education, despite the pandemic risks.

St. Thomas Aquinas School in Cleveland is growing amidst the pandemic.

St. Thomas Aquinas School in Cleveland is growing amidst the pandemic.

“We just got a new one,” Rachael Dengler, the principal of St. Thomas Aquinas School, said as she walked in front of its north side entrance. It was 2:30 pm on a Wednesday in February, and school had just been let out on East 91st and Superior Ave. “That makes it—what?” Dengler added, doing the math. “Two-hundred eighty-eight students, as of today.”

Walking to the south side of the school, Dengler waved on a slow parade of cars with parents waiting to pick up their kids. (No getting out, strict school policy.) It was 17 degrees, but Dengler seemed unaffected. Clearly, her focus was on the logistics that come with the fast-growing enrollment at this thriving school.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, St. Thomas’ enrollment has shot up 44 percent. Quite a feat since just one year ago, St. Thomas was slated to close. Staff at the school, which has operated on the east side of Cleveland for more than 100 years, was busy searching for new jobs.

Pandemic-era learning at St. Thomas Aquinas.

Pandemic-era learning at St. Thomas Aquinas.

Portia Gadson, the school’s enrollment coordinator and a former teacher, recalls the mourning and sense of grief last winter. “Parents were coming into my office crying,” she said. “Kids were crying. It really felt like a death, like someone had died. Something really had to happen.”

“It was like flying a plane with empty seats,” said Christian Dallavis, superintendent of Partnership Schools in New York City, which has taken over management of the school and helped it get back on its feet.

As Cleveland schools continue with remote learning, the district has experienced a pandemic exodus—2,252 students have left Cleveland schools in little more than a year. According to data from the Ohio Department of Education, enrollment fell from 37,148 students in October 2019 to 34,896 students in October 2020. Some parents are transferring their children to private Catholic schools for a strictly in-person education, despite the pandemic risks. CMSD officials did not respond to interview requests about enrollment drops.

The situation is not so rosy at many other parochial schools, where enrollment has been hit hard by the pandemic. Across the country, 149 schools have closed in the past year. Catholic schools were already seeing declining enrollment because of rising tuition costs, a nun shortage and generational change. Despite St. Thomas’ spike, the 107 schools in the Cleveland Diocese have lost a collective 6,479 students since 2016. That’s an average of one school shuttering per year.

From the 2019-2020 to 2020-2021 school year, the Catholic schools lost 1,398 students, according to the Cleveland Diocese. However, many schools that offered in-person learning in areas where the schools were remote saw an uptick. 

It helps that St. Thomas has an affiliation with Partnership Schools, which raised $3.1 million in funding from private donors to help restructure the school along with Archbishop Lyke School in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood. Dallavis brought in a two-tiered management system and improvements that include marketing staff and weekly professional development for teachers.

Students learning in person at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Cleveland.

Students learning in person at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Cleveland.

Last August, Dallavis and Dengler announced St. Thomas’ makeover with more good news. They would be the first Catholic school in Cleveland to open in-person, replete with an array of Plexiglass rooms and sanitizing stations. The word got out quickly, especially on Facebook. Many parents with children in CMSD wanted in. 

“We had parents calling us the first week, saying, ‘Hey, I’m driving by Superior, getting dropped off—is it too late for me?’ ” Dallavis said.

For Gadson, whose job heading enrollment was expanded to meet the demand, in-person learning was an undeniable draw. She recalls arriving at school to a relative shock one recent Monday in February.

On her desk sat a mountain of applications.

“We had 40 registration fees, all paid, all ready to roll,” Gadson said. “Parents were basically telling us, ‘Here’s my money, please keep my kids here!’ ”

A public exodus

When her kids were crashing her Zoom performances, musician Ariel Karas knew she had to change schools. Like many parents in Cleveland, she had been slugging through the at-home era of Covid education and was set on eyeing options to survive the summer. That, or risk dismantling her career as a professional violinist.

Last summer, Karas decided to pull her 4- and 5-year-old kids out of  Waverly School in CMSD. The mail-home packet of  worksheets and the YouTube lesson plans weren’t cutting it. Her work and that of her husband, Timothy, a self-employed contractor, was suffering.  

In early August, Karas suffered a long-coming breakdown. 

“I broke out in hives, had eczema issues, chest pains, I think I was so stressed,” she said. “Working with young kids felt like an emergency.”

By summer’s end, Karas found her salvation. Like other parents in her circle, she would transfer her two children to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a private Catholic school on Cleveland’s west side with roughly 500 students. 

Violinist and Detroit Shoreway parent Ariel Karas.

Violinist and Detroit Shoreway parent Ariel Karas.

Despite Catholic schools’ declining enrollment overall, schools like Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, on Detroit Avenue, are reporting an uptick because they offer in-person classes. Eighteen new students arrived this school year; at St. Adalbert, 35; at St. Agatha, roughly 42.

In the same Central East area where St. Thomas is located, CMSD schools lost a collective 47 kids. Many of them, Dengler said, have transferred to St. Thomas or Archbishop Lyke.

At St. Ignatius High School, an all-boys school and parish on Lorain Ave. in Ohio City, administrators welcomed 12 new families last August.

Anthony Fior, Ignatius’ principal, believes that all transferred on account of his parent’s choice policy—and a Covid-19 pre-assessment with doctors at University Hospitals. That and an HVAC update, 100 new air filters and “a ton of Plexiglass” for the classrooms. Lamenting the loss of Sunday Mass and fundraising goals, Fior said the schools needed to be in-person to rescue tuition income. ($18,000 a year, with only half of it usually covered by grants and vouchers.) 

“This is why we had to get kids back on campus,” he said. “If that wouldn’t have happened, we would have lost up to 150 kids.”

Concerns about social equity

The rumors that Brianna McMullins  heard about Catholic schools were those that many might consider typical. They were strict. They charged tuition. Most would reject her kids Jaideyn and Jordan, so what was the point of even trying?

It didn’t help that both her kids are IEP learners and required special attention. In August, when McMullins, a pharmacological associate by trade, saw other Cleveland Heights parents transferring their children to private schools, she reached out to Gadson at St. Thomas. McMullins was skeptical. After all, most schools didn’t exactly have their arms open for a 3rd grader with ADHD. 

Students at Partnership Schools in Cleveland.

Students at Partnership Schools in Cleveland.

“I got so many denials at that point, it was kind of discouraging,” McMullins said. “I even thought at one point of just homeschooling.”

In August, Jordan started at St. Thomas. Coming from Canterbury Elementary School in University Heights, where McMullins said lack of care for her son’s ADHD led to a “report card full of F’s,” she was hopeful. By October, she saw transformation. Not only had Jordan’s grades improved to A’s and B’s, but so did his overall morale, which she attributes to the teachers. Coryonna Robinson, his teacher, texts McMullins individualized progress updates; she even gave Jordan a “wobbly” chair to keep restlessness at bay.

“When I asked him if he liked school, he said, ‘Mom, I want to be here until the eighth grade,’ ” McMullins recalled. “ ‘You have to re-enroll me.’ ”

Although stories like this are undeniably good news for these parents and schools, a pernicious trend follows that could have long-term implications for public education. Enrollment declines will likely lead to dips in state funding of urban districts and the kids who remain. And as wealthier families shift to private schools, the gap between the haves and have nots could very well increase. Parent Angie Schmitt recently noted in an op ed for The Land that CMSD has delayed reopening until April and does not seem to have a plan for getting kids caught up. 

It’s a larger question that education experts are asking themselves as CMSD nears a spring reopening: Will the pandemic erode the limited progress Cleveland schools have made in the past decade?

Piet van Lier, an education researcher for Policy Matters Ohio, thinks it’s possible. 

CMSD’s loss, he said, could cost the district thousands of dollars in state support, which the passing of House Bill 1, the ‘Fair School Funding Plan’ that aims to modernize education funding across Ohio, could remedy. However, HB1 died in the Ohio Senate in December. Moreover, van Lier points to DeWine’s refusal to use his $2.7 billion rainy day fund to bolster inner city public schools as a marker of a wider, Republican dismissal of continual urban strife.

“Intentional policies that neglect black and brown children in our urban cities,” van Lier said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Looking to the future

For parents who live in a designated public school district such as the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools, Catholic school tuition in Cleveland can be paid for by EdChoice vouchers. For urban families, the Cleveland Scholarship Program helps subsidize private schools, paying for $4,650 of St. Thomas’ $4,750-per-year tuition, for example.

Rachael Dengler, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas School.

Rachael Dengler, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas School.

Policy Matters Ohio has long opposed vouchers, arguing that they deduct funds from public schools and “there is little evidence that private schools provide better academic outcomes, especially for lower-income students,” according to a February 2020 blog post by van Lier. In the fall, the Ohio General Assembly made changes to The EdChoice program, expanding eligibility to a larger number of districts, but still fewer than the 1,200 that would have been eligible this school year under the previous rules.

Pandemic health and safety issues for teachers, staff and families are also a concern. Although St. Thomas and Mt. Carmel reported zero positive student cases in February, the Diocese as a whole has a rolling average of 346 positive cases since November 12. That’s nearly half the average (at 693 per week) of the rolling case average for the eight counties the Diocese is in.

“Sure, they’re not zero,” said Frank O’Linn, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Cleveland. “But before [the winter spike], it appeared that the safest place to be was in a Catholic school.”

Karas said she was initially shamed by other parents for leaving the district, but the ability to keep working to help support her family outweighs the shaming. “I think every day I feel a little less guilty,” she said.

Part of the reason the Catholic schools have been able to reopen at all is because their teachers are not unionized. They do not have the same bargaining power as the Cleveland Teachers Union. As for what will happen once CMSD reopens for hybrid learning in April, as is expected to happen barring another change, experts aren’t certain.

Two things, van Lier says, are possible in Ohio schools. A mass exodus could, he believes, signal to state leaders that more funding is needed in metro districts to draw back the thousands that fled (he points to HB 1 as key). That, or district schools like CMSD will start the 2021-2022 year off with emptier seats—and fewer dollars to help fill them. 

“This could very well be an acceleration of decade upon decade of enrollment drops,” van Lier said – or it may not be. “I think of the rule of the pandemic. The only certainty is, well, uncertainty.”

According to a recent report from the Ohio Department of Education, from the 2019-2020 to the 2020-2021 school years, “Urban and major urban districts saw the greatest percentage change in enrollment at 4.8% and 4.3% respectively.” The report also notes that enrollment decreases are more concentrated in preschool and kindergarten.

For Dengler and her team at St. Thomas, the continual uptick of new kids is currently keeping spirits high. Even in February, a month after the start of the quarter, Dengler is seeing up to five or so new kids a week. Some days, she said, St. Thomas will welcome ten.

But will this 120-year-old school be able to support all the new members? Will they be able to create new classrooms, even after Dengler ordered a library expansion?

“I guess that’s the best problem to have,” she said.

Studies miles away in the Bronx and Harlem, where Partnership’s five other schools operate, paint a healthy future for St. Thomas’ lot. Dallavis reports that language arts test scores increased by 42 percent the first year after his organization re-structured those in Harlem.

It’s a virtue Gadson knows she has to embrace. Parents could very well return to CMSD after the pandemic is over, she says. Scholarship funding, after all, might not cover everyone’s yearly tuition of $4,750.

“Once we get them here,” Gadson said, “we gotta keep ‘em.”

Please note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the enrollment drop. We’ve updated the number and provided a link to the ODE data.

Mark Oprea is a Cleveland-based writer who has written for National Public Radio, Pacific Standard, and many others.

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