Oregon is like the kid in your class who was well-rounded, good looking and grew more popular each year.
The 33rd state is in the middle of a super-charged spurt, one that doesn’t appear to be letting up soon. Between 2015 and 2016, its growth rate surged to 1.7 percent, making it the sixth-fastest-growing state by percentage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 4.09 million people now call this geographically diverse, scenic and arguably still-affordable region home.
But as Oregonians welcome, if reluctantly at times, an influx of new neighbors, how has Catholic school enrollment within the Archdiocese of Portland been affected?
In hope of comprehensively answering this question, among many others, the archdiocese launched a long-range strategic planning process earlier this year.
The answer likely will be nuanced. While enrollment increased between 2010 and 2015, it saw a slight dip in the past two years. A number of schools’ student bodies continue to grow, but not all administrators attribute this to the population trend.
Here’s an initial look at some ways the state’s burgeoning population may be influencing the recent overall upward enrollment in Catholic elementary and secondary schools in western Oregon.
Population and gentrification
St. Cecilia School in Beaverton and St. Pius X School in Portland are just 5 miles apart. Both are in pockets of tremendous growth; their counties — Washington and Multnomah, respectively — grew by 2 percent in 2015. And both have experienced enrollment growth, albeit at different rates.
Yet like at schools across the archdiocese, the stories behind their numbers are far from parallel.
“I don’t think our enrollment is due to demographic reasons,” said Sue Harris, principal of St. Cecilia. Although the city is growing, “we are in a part of Beaverton that doesn’t have a lot of new construction,” she said.
Harris attributes the school’s success to stepped-up marketing efforts and reputation. St. Ceclia School serves parishioners as well as an increasing number of their non-Catholic neighbors, who Harris said see the gifts St. Cecilia offers through its value-based education and strong academics.
Harris’ counterpart at St. Pius, Mary Thompson, says her school’s accelerated growth is “clearly based on demographic changes.”
Since 2009, the school has grown a whopping 40 percent. Thompson arrived at the school in the 1990s and long has watched the area build up and out. She said there was a time when “we couldn’t even get all parishioners into the school.” St. Juan Diego Church was established in 2002 to better serve the Catholic population of the Cedar Hills/Bethany area, but plans to expand St. Pius X School were put on hold after “the economy tanked after 9/11,” Thompson said.
In 2009, however, St. Pius began to expand enrollment in stages by grade. The following year, the school added a new gym and eventually a new wing for classrooms.
Thompson said the school now seems to be meeting demand, with “some grades not yet at capacity and others with waitlists.”
Across the Willamette River, socioeconomic shifts are affecting enrollment at schools such as Holy Cross in North Portland and All Saints in Northeast Portland. Additional students in the classroom is “more about gentrification than population,” said Julie Johnson, Holy Cross principal.
“Blue-collar families are being pushed out, with rising housing costs bringing more affluent families in,” she said. Portland’s home-price growth recently slowed, but according to S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller home price index, between 2014 and 2015, prices jumped more than 11 percent — the biggest leap in the country. The Case-Shiller index measures relative changes in home prices using repeated sales of the same homes. It uses a three-month rolling average.
Johnson and All Saints Principal Rose Rosinski said the influx of well-off homebuyers means more families can afford tuition without assistance, although the schools strive “to keep a balance,” said Johnson. “We take great pride in socioeconomic diversity.”
Echoing a number of administrators, Johnson and Rosinski said Catholic schools attract more families when Portland Public Schools are struggling. “The lack of stability in public schools draws people to us,” said Rosinski.
In eight out of the past 15 years, overall Catholic elementary school enrollment in the archdiocese increased. Enrollment grew for four straight years before dropping the past two academic years.
These numbers reflect major growth at some schools, such as St. Pius X, but also the decision to close five schools in Portland, Roseburg and Astoria.
However, unlike recent high-profile school closings in the Diocese of Oakland, California, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, Oregon’s closures took place in different years for different reasons and were not part of a widespread strategic consolidation.
“As schools are closing in other parts of the country, we’ve held steady,” said Jeannie Ray-Timoney, associate superintendent of Catholic schools.
Ray-Timoney and her colleague John Matcovich of the schools department want to review information gathered and assessed as part of the strategic planning process before drawing any definitive conclusions about the population boom and its relationship to enrollment trends. “It’s likely mixed reasons,” said Ray-Timoney.
Matcovich observed, however, that one reason for increased enrollment in Catholic elementary schools might be the addition of preschools at parish schools across the archdiocese.
And he added that demographic changes are a possible reason for growth in the high schools.
Growth as opportunity
Many high school administrators attribute the overall climb in enrollment to the state’s swelling population — but only as a piece of the puzzle.
Part of the trend likely is the addition of De La Salle North Catholic High School in 2002; the first year it enrolled 72, this year 327.
Andrew Kuffner, principal of La Salle Prep in Milwaukie, said his school’s uptick in numbers is due to its location in growing Clackamas Country along with “an aggressive increase in tuition assistance.”
He said 56 percent of students receive help with tuition, backing up the school’s mission to have “economic as well as ethnic diversity.”
Jesuit High School in Beaverton has seen enrollment steadily rise for years, with a negligible drop this year.
Erin DeKlotz, Jesuits’ director of admissions, said the region’s Sunset Corridor is booming, with Intel and Nike drawing more families to the area job market. But marketing efforts and word of mouth also contributed to an increase in applications, according to DeKlotz. “Seeing parents very happy with what is happening when their kids attend is more effective than marketing efforts,” she said.
La Salle and Jesuit administrators believe the schools have reached enrollment figures that support their mission and culture, and they aren’t necessarily looking to expand at this time. “We’ve reached our sweet spot,” said Kuffner.
Jesuit’s neighbor, Valley Catholic High School, has been “positively impacted by population growth,” coupled with “a good stretch in our academic, music and athletic programs,” according to Bob Weber, president of Valley Catholic School.
“Success breeds more success,” he said. Weber acknowledged another possible factor in the high school’s enrollment uptick: An atypically small class recently graduated.
St. Mary’s Academy Principal Kelli Clark said her school’s enrollment has been affected by population changes, but she also points to the singularity of St. Mary’s offerings and a willingness to grow.
As the only all-girls high school in Oregon, the Portland school “serves a niche,” said Clark. “People really understand the power of an all-female education.” She added that the breadth of opportunities — everything from a new robotics team to the Marian Singers, who performed at the White House — draws families to the school.
At Catholic elementary and secondary schools across western Oregon, the reasons for the overall upward enrollment trend are varied, with socioeconomic changes, unique programming, increased marketing efforts and financial aid all contributing. Population growth, however, undoubtedly is a factor for some schools. But to what extent? And why the recent dip?
Through its strategic planning, the archdiocese intends to tackle these question in depth — along with exploring the racial and ethnic shifts in the region — to create a vision and plan for the future.
Alan Meitler is vice president of the Wisconsin-based consulting firm hired by the archdiocese to help with planning. He views the population changes as potential.
“If our mission of Catholic education is to evangelize and reach out and form more students in the faith,” he said, “we have to look at this growth as an opportunity.”