10,208 students are enrolled this year at Catholic schools in the Diocese of Peoria

Anna Sheley, Kinzley Bolen, Zoey Steinberg and Jase Bone, kindergartners at Carroll Catholic School in Lincoln, hold a sign welcoming the Priests Pedaling for Prayers in October. Meanwhile, the welcome mat that has been out for prospective students at the school has made this Carroll Catholic's largest kindergarten class since 2000. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Mirroring the national trend in Catholic school enrollment, the number of students in the 43 elementary and secondary Catholic schools and academies located in the Diocese of Peoria has declined from 10,488 in 2018-2019 to 10,208 this year. The loss of 280 students represents a decline of 2.7 percent, according to Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese.

Much of the decrease came in the elementary grades, where there are 7,979 students enrolled this year. That’s down 206 students from last year’s total of 8,185.

The high schools reported an enrollment of 2,229 students, a decline of 3.2 percent from last year’s total of 2,303.

“I’m not discouraged by that at all. Yes, we’ve declined, but I don’t think the numbers of the amount of students across the whole system that we’ve lost is any cause for alarm,” said Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Peoria. “We’re holding our own.”

Sanderson said some of the loss can be attributed to fewer children being baptized across the diocese and across the country, which means fewer potential students. People are also relocating outside of Illinois, so the state is seeing a decline in school-age children, he explained.

Still, there is also good news to be found in the numbers, Weiss said, noting that several schools have shown an increase in enrollment.

One of them is Holy Cross School in Mendota, which picked up 26 students — an increase of 16 percent.

“Despite the fact that we have an overall (enrollment) decline in the diocese, we’re quite optimistic with all these bright spots in kindergarten. Building for the future — that’s where it all begins.” — Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Peoria

“That continues a long-term trend for them of increasing enrollment,” Sanderson told The Catholic Post. He said over the past five years, the Mendota school has increased enrollment by 42 percent.

Other schools with a strong five-year trend are: St. Paul School in Odell, which is up 57 percent; Visitation Catholic School in Kewanee, 40 percent; St. Jude School in Peoria, 30 percent; St. Thomas School in Philo, 25 percent; Holy Family School in Oglesby, 22 percent; and Carroll Catholic School in Lincoln, 21 percent.

BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE

Sanderson said one of the reasons Carroll Catholic School can celebrate is because they have enrolled 19 students in the kindergarten program for three of the last four years — the largest kindergarten going back at least to 2000.

“To put it in perspective, as recently as 2011, they only enrolled three students in kindergarten. Back in 2010, they only enrolled six students in kindergarten,” he said. “So they’ve really reversed the picture in recent years. That’s a tremendous success story.”

Sanderson said credit is due to principal David Welch and his active promotion of Catholic education, which “really changed the paradigm in that community.”

In addition, St. Matthew School in Champaign, Schlarman Academy in Danville, and St. Joseph in Pekin are seeing their largest kindergartens since 2013. The Champaign school increased from 31 last year to 43 this year, and the Danville school went from 22 to 27, while the Pekin school, which had 10 students last year, now enrolls 16.

St. Paul School in Odell is also proving to be small, but mighty with 11 children in kindergarten. That’s the largest kindergarten since 2005 for the smallest school in the diocese, which has 19 students in their preschool program this year.

“They have a tremendous passion for Catholic education in the community of Odell, shared by not only the school families and the teachers, but also by the parishioners,” Sanderson told The Post. “There’s an intergenerational passion for that school and for ensuring that children are raised in the faith.”

He added that Father Chris Haake, pastor in Odell and Dwight, has been a big proponent of Catholic education and instrumental in getting families to enroll their students at the school.

CATHOLIC EDUCATION ASSURED

“Despite the fact that we have an overall decline in the diocese, we’re quite optimistic with all these bright spots in kindergarten,” Sanderson said. “Building for the future — that’s where it all begins.”

That indicates there is still a strong interest in Catholic school education, he said.

Weiss agreed.

“I can’t say enough about those who are sending their children to Catholic schools. I thank our families for their dedication and commitment to what they believe Catholic education is,” she said. “They’re putting not only their money, but they’re putting their children in our schools. I applaud that.”

Weiss added that she prays for the future of Catholic education and encouraged others to do the same.

“I know we’ll always have Catholic education. I’m assured of that. Our church has given us our schools in her wisdom,” she said. But what will that Catholic education look like in the years to come?

“It might just be that we have to think outside the box about how it’s designed,” Weiss said. “I find that exciting.”

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