By JENELYN RUSSO     9/14/2021

The Start of the 2021-22 school year for Diocese of Orange Catholic Schools brings with it some significant positive news. With continued growth trending in the areas of enrollment and test scores, the outlook for this academic year is strong, and leadership remains committed to keeping health and safety at the forefront.

Taking its cues from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the OC Health Care Agency, the OC Catholic Schools administrative team developed return-to-school guidelines that provide consistency from school to school across the diocese.

“Even with all that we’ve learned from last year, the landscape is shifting as we speak,” said OC Catholic Schools Superintendent Dr. Erin Barisano. “This year, it’s been our goal to take that bur­den off of our principals and sift through the information and guidelines and then be very direct to them so that they can spend their time implementing and not having to interpret.”

The wearing of masks indoors re­mains a requirement for all students, teachers and staff, while masks outdoors are optional. Some of the protocols that were instituted last year at school sites, while no longer required, were deter­mined to be good practice and have been kept in use. Cleaning protocols for desks and lunch tables, the presence of hand sanitizer dispensers and temperature checks at morning drop off are just a few examples of this approach.

A year ago at this time, elementa­ry schools within the diocese were in the process of receiving waivers from the county to open their campuses for in-person learning, an option that was not available at most of their public schools counterparts.

As a result, enrollment numbers saw a significant increase. Mike Schabert, associate superintendent of Catholic schools marketing and enrollment, reported at a recent Diocesan Leader­ship Response Team meeting an 8.77% percent enrollment increase, or more than 1400 students, from the September 2020 census to August 2021. This re­flects the first enrollment increase since 2015. An updated census for 2021 will take place this month.

“Our schools being open last year was a primary catalyst,” said Schabert. “Combine that with the significant effort on the part of both the diocese and the schools themselves, and once people came to our schools and tasted what we were offering, they loved it. And then they spread the word to their friends.”

Additional details show that 29 schools reported a double-digit enroll­ment increase, with 11 of those schools at more than a 20% increase. And for the many families who made the switch to Catholic schools last year, there has been a nearly 95% retention rate.

“What a beautiful opportunity for us to have these families who never would have even considered Catholic school,” said Barisano. “We became a really via­ble option and a desire for these families because we were in person. It’s been a blessing for us.”

In a letter that went out to families at the start of the school year, Barisano re­ported an increase in STAR mathemat­ics scores taken from the spring 2021 testing period. While public schools na­tionally saw a 6-point decrease in Math Student Growth Percentile (SGP), OC Catholic Schools saw an increase of 8 points during the same timeframe. This outperforms other Catholic and private schools nationally that experi­enced just a 1-point increase in Math SGP.

“Sometimes the unsung heroes are our teachers,” said Schabert. “All these new families that came to us got to experience such quality educators. And our teachers themselves are starting to recognize the impact they have on the success of a school, not just academi­cally, but overall.”

An area of excitement on the ele­mentary school campuses is the return of extracurricular activities, specifically after school sports through the Paro­chial Athletic League. After observing how high schools handled the return of sports last year, administration remains confident that these programs can be offered safely.

A spirit of collaboration by all involved in delivering quality educa­tion during this extraordinary time is something Barisano feels has served the team well.

“For Catholic schools, that collab­oration extends into building com­munity, and because of our faith, that then results in communion with one another,” said Barisano. “That’s pow­erful, and I do think that’s something so unique to Catholic schools. Those experiences that these families have, they are very real, and they are trans­formative experiences.”

Both Barisano and Schabert cited the commitment of Bishop Kevin W. Vann and the diocese to invest in Orange County’s Catholic schools as a catalyst for these positive trends. The theme for this school year is HOPE – Healthy Optimism, Positivity and Expectancy – and these words will provide all entities the guidance they need as they navigate another chal­lenging year.

“We really do approach it with gratitude for all that we’ve learned last year,” said Barisano. “With all those unexpected blessings, we then approach this year with hopeful hearts that we can continue to do this good work here in our diocese.”