Twenty-two eighth-graders graduated from St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Mays Landing in June, but only 15 will go on to a Catholic high school. The rest will attend their local public high school or the county vocational school.

As Catholic high schools adapt to survive, school officials know they cannot rely solely on transfers from Catholic elementary schools.

Sacred Heart High School in Vineland closed in June after only 23 freshmen registered for the 2013-14 school year, less than half of the 50 needed to keep the school financially viable. While some of the remaining students will transfer to other Catholic high schools, it appears the majority are returning to public schools, said Nicholas Regina, executive director of education for the Camden Diocese.

Catholic school officials say the higher cost of high school — typically about $7,500 per year, compared with about $4,500 for elementary school — is the primary barrier to continued enrollment.

“It’s all about the cost,” said Christine Gras, director of advancement at St. Vincent de Paul. Gras is already saving money for high school tuition for her daughter, now in fifth grade. “Families want to stay in Catholic schools to keep God in their children’s daily life, but there are financial issues.”

Kevin Quinn, director of advancement at Wildwood Catholic High School, said if he can get 70 percent of the eighth-graders from Cape Trinity, which now shares the high school building, he is thrilled.

“The reason most don’t continue is the cost, and while we give tremendous financial aid, sometimes it’s not enough,” he said.

Wildwood Catholic has been working with Cape Trinity to build a relationship that will make the transition to high school a natural move. St. Joseph High School in Hammonton also has a good relationship with St. Joseph Elementary School in that town.

But since most other Catholic high schools are separate and now regional entities, parents have a choice of multiple Catholic high schools. The expansion of charter and vocational schools has also introduced new competition and affected enrollment.

Regina said that while he does not have specific numbers, about 75 percent of eighth-graders in Catholic schools do go on to Catholic high schools. But, he said, if the high schools are to survive, they must look to the public schools as well.

“They have to look where all the potential students are,” he said. “There are non-religious reasons to attend a Catholic High School, including the smaller size, the programs and the Catholic values.”

Ironically, the shrinking enrollment at Catholic high schools can be a selling point to promote the smaller class sizes and personalized attention.

Holy Spirit High School in Absecon this year is targeting a freshman class of 80 students, just over half the size of this year’s graduating class of 152.

Holy Spirit advancement director Sue Werner said school officials have spent more time building relationships with the local Catholic elementary schools but are also focusing on how Holy Spirit can prepare all children for their future both academically and morally.

“Today parents are looking for particulars. Students are already planning their futures, and parents want a high school that will help them travel in that direction,” she said.

Werner and Principal Susan Dennan said they have opened Holy Spirit to local Catholic elementary schools for events and have an arts program that brings in younger students to help develop a relationship with the school.

Quinn said Wildwood Catholic’s goal is 50 students for each freshman class, and the school can manage in the mid-40s, so every student counts, no matter where they come from. He tries to get about 10 from Bishop McHugh in Cape May Court House, and typically about half of the freshmen will come from public schools.

Quinn said officials market the school as an investment, with the 41 graduates offered almost $6 million in scholarships this year. So far he has 43 freshmen, as well as two students transferring from Sacred Heart.

“They want to stay in a small high school,” he said. “And it’s good to see people who are still committed to a Catholic education.”

The effectiveness of developing a quality program is exemplified by the growth at St. Augustine Prep in Buena Vista Township, which is anticipating a total enrollment of 690 young men for the 2013-14 school year, even at a cost of $15,600 for tuition. Director of enrollment management Stephen Cappuccio said about 60 percent of the freshmen come from public schools.

He said that while some parents start their children in Catholic elementary schools to build a religious foundation, parents choose St. Augustine to pave the way to college. This year’s graduating class of 173 students was offered $37 million in college scholarships, Cappuccio said.

“When I graduated (in 1996), there were only about 40 seniors,” he said. “There were only about 200 students in the entire school.”

Catholic high schools

Chart shows the size of the graduating classes of local high schools in the Camden Diocese since 2008.

School 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013

Holy Spirit 213 218 183 179 180 152

Sacred Heart 94 73 n/a 67 67 53

St. Joseph 120 128 121 85 99 85

Wildwood Catholic 76 49 65 43 51 40

Source: Press archives

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