Like a Prayer

The kindergarten classes are just getting up from the rest period and having their afternoon snacks at Ascension School in Minneapolis. Several groggy kids are still sprawled on their mats on the floor. School principal Dorwatha Adderley, who is making a round of the classrooms this afternoon, bends over one girl, pushing her hair off her face and gently urging her to get up and join the other students at the tables.

One boy complains that he forgot his snack at home. His teacher suggests he ask his neighbor, Brandon, if he can have one of his crackers. After several tries at putting the question properly with the required "please," Brandon tosses a cracker with a bite out of it across the table. The teacher returns the cracker and tells him to provide a whole one. He hands a fresh snack to his classmate, who is instructed to say thank you.

Adderley uses the exchange to reinforce the lessons of sharing and helping one another. She relates a story of how recently she arrived late at the school's cafeteria to find the day's main course of chicken nuggets gone. She asked the eighth-graders eating lunch at the time if they would share some of what they had. They each contributed to her tray so she would not have to go without lunch.

"The Lord likes it when we share," she concludes. At Ascension School, located just a few blocks away from the noise and grit of Broadway Avenue in a poor section of the near north side of Minneapolis, God and Jesus are mentioned frequently throughout the day. Students pray and attend Mass regularly. The daily routine includes classes in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic along with a heavy dose of music. The rules of behavior are strict, but the teachers seem kindly and are willing to give individual care and attention to students, some of whom struggle with learning or behavior problems.


This is what parents these days want for their children, according to Adderley. When Adderley arrived at Ascension School twelve years ago, the enrollment was 163 and dropping, she says. But those bleak years are over. Last fall, the school had a waiting list of 100 children. With the blessing of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Ascension will double in enrollment over the next seven years from the current 220 to 440 students by adding a new class in one grade each year. This fall a kindergarten class was added. Next year, a new first grade class will open. Ascension mirrors a national and local renaissance in Catholic schools. In the ten-county Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are lengthy waiting lists at many Catholic elementary and high schools. Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, for example, had to turn away 220 freshman applicants last fall, according to Thomas McCarver, director of education and superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. Thirty-four schools in the area currently are undergoing remodeling or renovation to accommodate new students. A little more than a decade ago, Catholic schools in the metro area, like Cretin-Derham Hall, were consolidating or closing, McCarver says. In 1987, Regina High School in Minneapolis closed, and in 1991 Brady High School in West St. Paul shut its doors due to declining enrollment. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the trend began to reverse. "We were a bit caught by surprise," McCarver says. Now, parents are pushing to send their children to Catholic schools near their homes. To meet this need, three new metro area schools are on the drawing boards. Elementary schools are planned in Woodbury and Eagan, and a high school in the southwestern suburb of Victoria is slated to open in fall 2000. The turnaround is due to a convergence of several demographic and social factors, McCarver and others say.

First, there are just more Catholics in the area. The archdiocese, which is the 16th largest in Catholic school enrollment in the nation, is growing by 10,000 new Catholics residents a year, according to McCarver. Second, among this population there is a renewed desire among parents to educate their children in a Catholic school.

"The story being told time and again by parents is that with all the violence seen in society today, they want to move kids closer to safer conditions and conditions where values are stressed," McCarver says.

Pat Humphrey, whose son, Anthony, started at Ascension School in kindergarten and is now in fourth grade, sees Catholic school as the way for her son to get a well-rounded foundation academically, emotionally, and spiritually.

"With parochial schools they have more control over the whole child, not just in academics," she says. "There are lots of conceptions of the way Catholic schools used to be --ruled with an iron ruler by rigid nuns. Granted, there are rules, but they also allow Anthony to be an individual. They strengthen his weaknesses, but don't lessen who he is. Catholic schools can deal with all aspects of the child."  

Teachers, too, are not as constrained by bureaucracy as they may be in public schools, says Adderley. "We can make changes much quicker than a public school," she says. "If we know we have a slow learner who needs extra support, we can do that without a lot of extra meetings. Teachers are able to teach here." Finally, dedicated lay leaders--administrators, teachers, parents, and volunteers--feel they have a duty to support and promote Catholic education as part of the mission of the church.

In the past, the bishop of an archdiocese would see the need for a new school, and would ask for a conversation with religious orders. The diocese would provide the parcel of land for the school, and the religious orders would see that the school was built and staffed. Lay people would contribute to the effort, but not lead the school, McCarver explains. Now, parents and concerned volunteers are taking the initiative to start new schools and lead them. This is an opportunity brought largely thanks to the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, which encouraged the Catholic laity to accept leadership roles in carrying out the church's mission, McCarver says.

At Ascension, with teacher salaries starting at $16,000 a year, Adderley says she seeks educators "who are looking for a ministry. You have to want to make a difference in somebody's life and be excited about Jesus," she says. Parents at Ascension are required to volunteer at the school or pay more tuition. Everyone gets involved with the various school fundraisers. Ascension's sister parish, Holy Name of Jesus in Medina, recently contributed $800,000 for renovations to the inner-city school including a new roof, new windows, tuck-pointing and having the exterior brick cleaned. And, in October, Adderley and the school's physical education teacher pitched a tent on the roof of the school and spent a Saturday night high above the neighborhood to raise money for financial aid. Roughly seventy percent of the students at Ascension receive assistance for the approximately $1,000 annual tuition. The roof-sitting fundraising effort garnered $35,000, some of it hoisted to the roof in a bucket.

For the sixth consecutive year, enrollment in Catholic schools nationwide has increased. The southeast and west are experiencing the biggest jumps, reflecting the general shift in population to the Sunbelt, according to statistics from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Washington, D.C.

Over the last twelve years, 155 new Catholic schools have been opened throughout the United States to accommodate this increased enrollment, according to the NCEA. Sixty percent of those schools opened in the southeastern and western regions of the country. Most of the new schools are located in suburbs, with a handful in inner cities. Currently, there are 8,223 Catholic elementary and secondary schools nationwide.

Not long ago, however--in the late 1960s and continuing into the early 1980s--Catholic school enrollment nationally was plummeting. The NCEA and others familiar with the trend attribute it to ideas about how to best educate children--ideas that came into vogue in the 1960s--and a decrease in the number of people entering religious vocations. Lay people began to replace the nuns and priests who traditionally had taught in and administered the schools. In the early 1960s, ninety-five percent of the educators in these institutions were religious and five percent were lay people. Today, ninety-eight percent of the educators in Catholic schools are lay people and only two percent are religious. Because the lay leadership required salaries, the costs of running a Catholic school started to inch upward. Tuition began to rise to meet this need, leading many parents to reconsider sending their kids to Catholic school.

Now, the tide has turned and demographic and social shifts have led many parents back to Catholic schools. For instance, the increase in two-income families coincided with the opening of Catholic preschools, observes McCarver of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Parents seemed to prefer that their children attend preschool, where worship and Catholic values are incorporated into the day, rather than a day-care center.

"When parents found the cost of day-care centers to be about twice as much as preschool, we found we were not getting complaints about the tuition," McCarver says.

The NCEA also likes to point to their marketing campaigns as raising awareness of the benefits of Catholic education. "We're not doing anything differently, it's just that people didn't know what kind of quality education Catholic schools provide," says Regina Haney, executive director of the National Association of Catholic Boards of Education in Washington, D.C. "Our marketing is telling people."

Colorful posters, ads, billboards with toll-free numbers for people to call for more information all extol the virtues of a Catholic education. One recent ad campaign featured the image of a snow-capped mountain against a deep blue sky with pine trees and a field of wildflowers in the foreground. The headline read: "If Faith Can Move Mountains, Imagine What it Can Do for Your Child's Education."  

Extensive research on human brain theory and ways of learning also has borne out the effectiveness of some of the techniques Catholic schools have employed over the years, Haney says, adding that Catholic schools now are working to integrate technology into the curriculum.

"There is so much more we know about learning today," Haney says. "We have to look at doing it differently. The industrial age model has to be changed for the information age model."

As more parents decide they want a Catholic education for their children, they are pushing local parishes to expand enrollments and open new schools, Haney says. Unlike parents thirty years ago, modern parents, many of whom bring business and marketing savvy to the table, often lead the school boards. As a result, the message about the benefits of Catholic education is spreading to more and more people, Haney says.

"These business people are committed to our mission," Haney says. "They have the values and they know that providing good educational opportunities will mean you have a good workforce. Parents are not going to sit back. They are much more pro-active today.

"It's a great time." Haney says. "It's also a very challenging time in meeting the needs of children and families."

Back in August of 1995, a group of four parishioners who live in Excelsior got together for coffee to discuss the need for a Catholic high school in their area. The meeting is now recognized as the beginning of what will be the Twin Cities first new Catholic High School in thirty years.

Holy Family Catholic High School is scheduled to open in the fall of 2000 with freshman and sophomore classes totaling about 365 students. Eventually the school will accommodate 800 to 1,000 students in grades nine through twelve. Holy Family will be located on an eighty-acre parcel near the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Victoria.

"A lot of parents are approaching us to pre-enroll their kids, four to five years early," says Rob Roy, one of the initial four who saw the need for the school and currently is the board's chair. Roy, however, does not have children who will attend the school. His son is in his senior year at the University of St. Thomas.

"I had a wonderful Catholic education. I've been successful," says Roy, a partner in Vinyl Art, a manufacturer of packaging material in Plymouth. "My son has had a wonderful education. It's time for me to give back."

To bolster their case for a new high school in the far western suburbs, the core group of parents conducted a demographic and financial feasibility study and found a very clear need and support for the school, Roy says.

Over the last five years in the metro area, enrollment in Catholic elementary schools has been growing at two percent a year and in secondary schools at four percent a year, according to archdiocese figures. The total enrollment in elementary and secondary schools in the archdiocese is 36,000. Statewide, 201 Catholic schools enroll 51,186 students or sixty-one percent of all children enrolled in nonpublic schools, according to Doug Gray of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning. In the mid-1960s, Catholic school enrollment represented eighty-eight percent of nonpublic school students. Between 1965 and 1985 Catholic school enrollment statewide plummeted twenty-three percent. Only over the last five or six years have the number of students attending Catholic elementary and secondary schools begun a steady climb, Gray says.

One of the fastest growing areas in general and for the Catholic population in particular is the Minnesota River region in Carver and Scott counties. Holy Family High School would draw from this rapidly growing edge of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

In April 1997, Archbishop Harry Flynn gave the Holy Family group his blessing and commissioned them as a full board to see the high school project through.

The board is comprised of a wide range of professionals who volunteer their time and special skills.

"The people who sit around the board table come from different walks of life and talents," says Theo Chalgren, a board member and parent of three children--who will all be eligible to attend Holy Family. "It's amazing how God put us together with our diverse talents. Everyone is very professional and dedicated."

Fellow board members include Tom Steward, a former WCCO-TV reporter, and his wife, anchorperson Colleen Needles, together own a television production company. Chalgren, Steward, and Needles produced a capital campaign video to show potential donors. Another board member, Tom Burke, is a real estate attorney and helped put together the land purchase deal. Chalgren's wife is a graphic designer and designed the capital campaign brochure and publicity materials.  

"The sacrifices and leadership from parents are phenomenal," McCarver of the archdiocese says. "The parents are taking charge and I think that's the way it should be."

The board also wants to utilize community resources--both Catholic and non-Catholic--to make the project a success. Those on the capital campaign committee for the school, who are raising money for the $20 million project, will receive training, counseling and supervision from the University of St. Thomas' development office thanks to an agreement with the University. Also, board members are working with the Arboretum to develop science labs and the earth science curriculum to incorporate elements from this neighboring resource.

"We're also trying to work with the surrounding communities and Carver County for joint facility utilization," Roy says. "We want to make sure we're not duplicating facilities and find out what things we could share." The board recently hired a president, Paul Stauffacher from Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin, after a nationwide search that brought in more than 100 applications. Stauffacher will assume his new duties at Holy Family on Jan. 4. The board also has contracted with the Bloomington based architectural engineering firm the DLR Group for the 135,000-square-foot school.

The architecture will echo the school's guiding principles. When you enter the building, the first thing you will see is the chapel. The north side of the building will have the classrooms, computer labs, and library, while the south side will have the gym and cafeteria. "This reflects the mind, soul, and body," Roy says. "A lot of thought went into it."

The ultimate mission of the school is never far from the minds of those involved.

"When I got involved [with Catholic education] it did something strange to me--it pulled me into the faith headfirst," says Chalgren, who grew up Catholic, but went to public schools. "Our most important job is to get these kids into heaven; to equip them with the tools to do that.

"The teenage years are a critical time. Peer pressure is at its greatest," Chalgren says. "We want to create an atmosphere where it's okay to talk about God. We want our kids to grow up to be healthy enough to make good decisions on their own, and so they are ready to step out into the real world at eighteen."

Even with the opening of Holy Family, the Archdiocese also sees the need for at least one other high school in the not too distant future.

"We know we need a new high school to the south of the Twin Cities, probably in the Lakeville/Apple Valley area," McCarver says. "This is not going to be a [enrollment] spurt. This is a trend that is going to be with us for a long time."

Figures show that sixty-five percent of those who attend Catholic elementary schools go on to a Catholic high school. Right now, eighty percent of the Catholic elementary schools in the Twin Cities area are filled with waiting lists, McCarver says.

Two elementary schools planned--one in Woodbury and one in Eagan--should help alleviate some of the enrollment crunch.

Bob Cass is the treasurer of the board of Faithful Shepard, the K-8 grade school slated to open in Eagan in the fall of 2000. This school is a partnership of three parishes in northern Dakota County. "There is a high, high demand for Catholic education," Cass says. "And in northern Dakota County there is a lack of options."

When Cass's oldest daughter was ready to enter kindergarten, her name was on three waiting lists at schools scattered throughout the metro area. In the summer before she was to start school, she was accepted at Holy Spirit in Highland Park.

Now, Cass and six other families from Eagan carpool each day to Holy Spirit, making the half-hour commute to this inner-city school.

"We're very pleased with the school," Cass says. "At Catholic schools they make worship part of their day. They not only learn the three "R's," they learn why they should learn. Knowledge is a good thing, but very few people know how to put their knowledge to good use."

Faithful Shepard will eventually have an enrollment of 625 students, as will the school planned for Woodbury, the New St. Ambrose School. Each of these schools is estimated to cost between $9 million and $13 million dollars to open.

For Faithful Shepard, the capital campaign committee is made up of 300 volunteers to help raise the funds to see the school built. Parents involved are appealing to the broader community as well as Catholic parishes.  

"Businesses need value-based, highly ethical employees to propel their businesses forward," Cass says. "If I were a business owner, I'd be very interested in seeing Catholic education succeed."

As increasing numbers of dedicated parents are making the push to revitalize older schools and construct brand-new facilities, the current trend of rising enrollment in Catholic schools will continue. "Parents are really sensing in today's society there needs to be something more at the center of their children's lives," Cass explains. "We recall our own Catholic education and we want that very desperately for our children."


Elaine Ellis Stone is a St. Paul writer whose work has appeared in many local and national publications.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >