January 23, 2015

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Voucher program leads to more students in Catholic high schools

By Natalie Hoefer

When the Indiana state voucher program, now called the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, went into effect on July 1, 2011, there was an expectation that Catholic school enrollments would rise.

The numbers did not disappoint.

Last November during the Celebrating Catholic School Values Awards event, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools Gina Fleming announced that Catholic high schools in the archdiocese saw an increase of more than 600 students between last school year and this school year alone.

The Criterion spoke with two school presidents—Philip Kahn of Prince of Peace Catholic Schools in Madison and Joe Therber of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis—to get their take on the voucher program’s impact on school enrollment and on the effects the growth is having on their schools.

‘Great for our school and our families’

On the banks of the Ohio River hugging a bend in the state’s natural southern boundary lies the town of Madison, population approximately 12,000.

Despite the town’s smaller size, says school president Philip Kahn, Father Michael Shawe Memorial Jr./Sr. High School has benefitted from the voucher program, growing from a student enrollment of 150 during the 2009-10 school year to 177 students this school year. That’s a 16 percent increase over a five-year span.

The increase hasn’t raised issues of space and staffing yet, he says.

“We had room to grow, so we have reorganized a few of the teachers and their responsibilities, but haven’t had to add more positions at the high school level,” he says.

But the increase of students at Pope John XXIII Elementary School, over which Kahn is also president, resulted in the addition of four new elementary level teacher positions.

“I think down the road that [increase in student enrollment at the elementary level] is going to have us looking seriously about adding more teachers or faculty members at the high school,” he says.

In addition to the state voucher program, Kahn attributes part of the reason for the growing student enrollment at Shawe Memorial to the rollout of a new marketing plan that happened to coincide with the creation of the voucher program. Six years ago, the school adopted a principal/president model of administration. As president, Kahn is able to focus his attention on marketing and promoting the schools.

“Marketing has been a big help because we have more time to get the word out and follow up with those who express an interest,” he explains. “But obviously the voucher program opened the door to more families who might have been interested.”

With the school drawing from “seven or eight counties and students living as far as 30, 40 minutes away,” says Kahn, the voucher program helps to attract more families than just those residing in Madison.

“The Choice Scholarship Program has been a wonderful opportunity that has enabled so many different families to get a high quality Catholic education that maybe weren’t able to do it before,” says Kahn. “It’s been great for our school and our families.”

‘God’s blessing on the school’

For more than 60 years, Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School has served as the archdiocesan high school for the Indianapolis East Deanery.

In the last five years, enrollment has grown by 104 students, equating to a 33 percent increase in student population.

While Scecina president Joseph Therber primarily attributes the growth to “God’s blessing on the school,” he acknowledges the impact of the Choice Scholarship Program, as well as alumni support, ongoing facility improvements and strong relationships with deanery- and other local schools.

Therber specifically credits the voucher program for the increasing diversity within the student population.

“I think the voucher program has increased the number of Latino and African-American students,” he says. “You can go in our hallways and see the kind of diversity you expect in our city, in New York, in other parts of the country.”

He estimates that about 60 percent of Scecina’s students are Caucasian, followed by Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and other ethnicities.

“From a racial and ethnic point of view, we think that’s a really healthy situation in which to go to school,” Therber says. “That [diversity] gives our students the opportunity to be exposed to the real world, to prepare them for college and life.”

With diversity come challenges—good challenges involving personal growth, says Therber.

“I think when you have an increase [in enrollment] that is also an increase in diversity, it gives us a great opportunity to live the mission of our Church and improve the future health of our community,” he says. “The students have a rich array of backgrounds and academic interests. That whole cultural expansion is a good thing.”

But with such diversity comes the challenge to “teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators to become more responsible and connect with a student body that has life interests, academic interests and different backgrounds that are always expanding,” he admits.

The increase in student enrollment has also led to the hiring of more teachers, new class offerings, and expanding student and counseling services.

As Therber looks to the future, he sees continued growth for Scecina’s student enrollment. That growth, he says, is “not just for numbers’ sake.

“We are very committed to growth that is intentional, that can be managed for the good of the school environment and the quality of school programs.”

Whether through the voucher program or other means, there is one benefit that reigns supreme, says Therber. “When your enrollment grows by 33 percent, you’ve got more [youths] attending Mass every week and receiving the benefits of getting Catholic theology every day of their high school career.” †

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