Tuesday, August 15, 2023
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
MIAMI | Thanks to Step Up, archdiocesan schools are seeing enrollment increases and even waiting lists for the 2023-24 school year.
Step Up is shorthand for the array of scholarships made available by the state of Florida to parents whose children attend private schools or who have special needs.
Started in 2001 with the goal of helping lower-income families send their children to the school of their choice, the Florida legislature expanded the scholarship program this year, making it available to all K-12 students in the state regardless of income, be they homeschooled or enrolled in private or religious schools.
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options cover up to $7,800 a year of tuition and fees at private schools. Priority is given to families whose annual household income is less than 185% of the U.S. poverty threshold ($55,500 for a family of four), although families with incomes up to 400% of the threshold are eligible ($120,000 for a family of four).
That means that a school such as St. Bernadette in Hollywood now has a waiting list for some grades.
“I’ve been told we haven’t had a waiting list for years, so it’s really good,” said Jacqueline Schuck, who is starting her first year as principal there. “Step Up is definitely helping everyone.”
At St. Theresa School in Coral Gables, where enrollment hovers around 900 students in pre-K3 through eighth grade, the number of families receiving Step Up scholarships grew from 160 last year to just over 560 this year, said Sister Rosalie Nagy, the school’s principal and a member of the Carmelites of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. “Step Up blew up,” she said.
Tuition at St. Theresa is around $9,500.
“We try to keep it as affordable as possible,” Sister Rosalie said. “I have parents who can afford it,” but not everyone, especially if the family has three or more children enrolled.
Sister Rosalie also said 90 families had applied for 60 spots in pre-K3, a sign that enrollment across all archdiocesan schools, which bottomed after the 2008-09 recession, is picking up again.
“We are absolutely increasing enrollment,” said Jim Rigg, archdiocesan superintendent of schools and cabinet secretary for education. “This will be our third consecutive year with enrollment increases.”
His office is predicting an enrollment increase of between 2.5 and 3% for the 2023-24 school year. There are 64 Catholic schools in the archdiocese, including St. Malachy, which is reopening this year after closing 14 years ago.
“We are over 29,000 students in the archdiocesan operated schools, which is the largest enrollment we've had for at least eight years,” Rigg said. “So we have recovered from the pandemic and then some in regards to enrollment and more and more of our schools are at capacity with waiting lists.”
According to the 2022-23 statistics from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, 200,000 students are currently enrolled in Florida scholarship programs that are income-based or based on special need, including around 41,500 in Catholic schools throughout the state. In the Archdiocese of Miami, the number is around 12,000, with 59 of the Catholic schools here participating in at least one of the programs.
The impact of Step Up, and its expansion this year, “is certainly part of why we think enrollment continues to increase,” Rigg said. “I don't yet have any hard data on how many families are coming through us with scholarships yet. I suspect we'll see a significant uptick, particularly in middle- and upper-income areas.”
That’s because parents in low-income neighborhoods have been using Step Up for years, so even a school like St. James in North Miami has been “full with a waiting list for a while now,” he explained. “Enrollment doesn't necessarily reflect the economic backgrounds of the families.”
More often than not, enrollment reflects the demographics of an area.
“We have nobody that has critical enrollment needs. There's no conversation about closing schools. But we do have schools, particularly in areas where we're seeing demographic change, that have space,” Rigg said.
At the same time, he noted, also because of demographic change, in some areas the question is whether there is enough capacity, or enough Catholic schools, to serve interested families.
What if Step Up ends?
“It would be a significant hardship for our families and ultimately our schools,” Rigg said, and “we do talk about alternative plans” should it go away. But “we see no sign” of the politics changing anytime soon. “It really hasn't happened elsewhere in the country yet that once you have a program of this magnitude, it goes away.”
For now, the archdiocese is “encouraging every family in Catholic education to apply for a scholarship,” Rigg said. “Again, it's available to everyone. They can receive it by right of paying taxes in the state of Florida, so why not apply?”