By Jenelyn Russo     3/15/2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged every aspect of how education is delivered, and for the Diocese of Orange Catholic schools, this season of change has produced a positive trend – an increase in students across nearly all school sites, slowing down a steady decline in enrollment seen system-wide in recent years. 

Even prior to the pandemic, diocesan schools saw an uptick in enrollment in the second half of the 2019-2020 school year, closing the gap on previous annual losses of approximately 500 students to only an estimated 200 students, as shared by Diocese of Orange Catholic Schools Associate Superintendent of Marketing and Enrollment, Mike Schabert. 

But then in March of 2020, COVID-19 forced school closures across the country. While Orange County Catholic schools quickly pivoted to a robust distance learning solution, the uncertainty of the new school year in California kept many families from committing for the fall. Enrollment numbers in August 2020 were more than 1,000 students less than the September 2019 census. 

Some good news emerged in that same month when a waiver process was offered by the Orange County Health Care Agency that allowed county elementary schools to offer in-person instruction with certain safety protocols in place. Every elementary school site within the Diocese of Orange received the waiver and began the school year by welcoming students back to campus. As a result, the September 2020 census recorded an increase of nearly 450 students within a one-month span. 

A steady stream of new families has enrolled since September, with the system adding as many as 20-30 students each week. Between August 13, 2020 and March 1, 2021, enrollment was up a total of 864 students, and the numbers continue to rise. 

While waivers have played a large role in these increases, the Diocese of Orange has also provided significant support through financial resources, digital marketing campaigns and professional development classes that have helped the schools to navigate the quickly changing education landscape. 

Additionally, each school site is uniquely addressing the needs of their families and providing creative solutions that have produced positive results. 

Back in January of 2020, St. Joachim Catholic School in Costa Mesa hired a marketing director to help bolster the school’s presence in the community. The efforts led to increased enrollment over the summer, before it was even known if returning to in-person instruction was an option.  

Once St. Joachim received its waiver, and it was announced that surrounding area public schools would start the year in distance learning, the school saw a spike in enrollment and continues to add students, an additional 32 since August with more than 80 students on a waiting list for next year. 

“I think it’s a testament to what we offer in a Catholic school,” says St. Joachim Principal Lisa Gilbert, “and now they know because they are here.”  

At St. Hedwig Catholic School in Los Alamitos, there was some concern last August when neighboring Los Alamitos Unified received the county’s only public school district waiver. 

But effective word-of-mouth marketing by St. Hedwig families, combined with the continued closure of public schools in nearby Long Beach, have led to 52 new students since August, prompting the school to open an additional first grade class and hire a part-time admissions manager.  

“Our families and our school community recognize how we are prioritizing their needs,” says St. Hedwig Principal Erin Rucker. “If parents feel safe and have that connection with teachers, then that’s what’s going to drive more people to come here.” 

A strong reputation in the community and a commitment to maintaining connections with families are what have helped St. Bonaventure Catholic School add 56 students since August. The school also offers a virtual synchronous learning track that features robot technology and allows for student body growth without impact to physical space. 

“It’s about education and the invitation,” says St. Bonaventure Principal Kim White. “You always have to have that invitation open in a welcoming way…and there’s nothing more sweet than seeing someone take you up on that invitation.”  

In San Clemente, Our Lady of Fatima Academy Principal Elizabeth Gosnell has made a concerted effort to reach out to parish families as a way of addressing declining enrollment. Visiting VBS and offering a financial incentive to current school families for referrals, alongside a successful distance-learning transition in the spring, resulted in significant student increases over the summer before the waiver option was announced. The school has added 31 students since August. 

“That summer enrollment (increase) was just on the fact that our online instruction was so much stronger than the local public schools,” says Gosnell. 

At the high school level, Rosary Academy has seen an increase of nearly 100 students since the September 2018 census, and while half came from the closing of Cornelia Connelly High School last June, Rosary hired an outreach coordinator who has expanded their Future Royal program, introducing more elementary-aged girls to the benefits of an all-girls high school education. 

“Once they come on to campus and meet one of our students, they tend to get more excited about the school,” says Rosary Head of School Shawna Pautsch. “Using our student ambassadors really helps in telling our story.” 

While each school’s approach to growth may be slightly different, the common thread is that Orange County Catholic schools are meeting the needs of their families, and as a result, expanding their school communities. 

“It is a beautiful thing to be a part of as our ministry…to spread Catholic education and bring people closer to God,” says St. Bonaventure Director of Marketing and Enrollment Vanessa Frei. “It’s just been a wonderful thing to see happen.”