Bucking a national trend, enrollment at most of Long Island's Catholic high schools is strong and holding steady, even as falling numbers of students in the diocese's elementary schools forced closures and the region's economy struggles to regain its pre-recession footing.
Seven of the 10 high schools showed enrollment gains over the decade from the 2003-04 school year through 2012-13, while three saw declines. One school, the all-girls Academy of St. Joseph in Brentwood, closed in 2009.
The stability on Long Island stems from a combination of factors -- the number of Catholics here and families' desire to have their children in a faith-based high school; the institutions' academic rigor, traditions and strict rules; and the modest tuition cost compared with other private schools.
Chaminade High School in Mineola, with a $40 million endowment supported by loyal alumni, is attracting students from as far away as New Jersey and has to reject about 65 percent of applicants annually. Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale is at capacity and, like Chaminade, turns away hundreds of applicants each year.
The student body at St. Anthony's in South Huntington, which features a $34 million student center, is near all-time highs. And Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset, one of two all-girls Catholic high schools on the Island, operates a van service to the village's train station to pick up students whose hometowns range from the Hamptons to Bayside, Queens.
The upward trend is repeated at Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead and St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, state Department of Education figures show. St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay has seen some losses, but expects a new $7.5 million science center to boost enrollment.
For those eight schools, enrollment has risen to 10,196 in the 2012-13 school year from 9,473 a decade ago.
"We are a notable exception to what appears to be a national trend of declines in Catholic education," said Brother Gary Cregan, principal of St. Anthony's. "I am so grateful all of our schools are doing well."
The trend is especially remarkable considering that the tuition-charging Catholic schools compete with what are considered to be some of the best public school systems in the country, with residents paying high property taxes to support them, Cregan said.
Enrollment at the Island's remaining two Catholic high schools, St. Mary's High School in Manhasset and Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville, declined significantly over the last decade, which officials attribute in part to changing demographics or intentional moves to "right size."
Total enrollment at all the high schools in 2012-13 was 12,156, reflecting the closure of Academy of St. Joseph -- with its student body dropping to 185 in its final year -- and declines at St. Dominic, St. Mary's and Holy Trinity.
Potential ripple effect
Nationally, the number of Catholic high school students dropped to 590,883 this year from 653,226 in 2005, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington, D.C.
Some education experts warn there could be trouble for the Catholic high schools in the future, as the decline in Catholic grammar-school students -- mirroring a decline in the general school-age population -- catches up with them.
The drop in elementary-aged students already has had an effect on Long Island: In June 2012, the Diocese of Rockville Centre closed six of its 53 grammar schools because of enrollment decreases.
"I think the Catholic high schools in New York, given the sharp decline in the K-8 cohort, are going to face a world of hurt," said Abraham Lackman, New York City's budget director under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani who has researched public and private schools' enrollment trends. "If the elementary schools on Long Island are closing, in my view, it is only a matter of time before that will filter into the high school system."
While leaders of the Catholic high schools acknowledge that warning flag, it is not stopping them from adding to their campuses and programs.
Falling grammar and middle school numbers are "everyone's worry," said Joan Gordon, principal of Our Lady of Mercy. "But people are still coming, because there is something of value here, and people pay for value. It's working."
The number of Catholics on Long Island portend a continuing student base: Of 2.8 million residents in Nassau and Suffolk counties, 1.7 million are baptized Catholics, according to the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
The bottom line is another factor. For parents seeking a private-school education for their children, the cost can be viewed as a relative bargain.
Factoring the costs
Tuition at the Catholic high schools is generally about $8,500 to $9,000 a year, according to the schools. That's a lot less than Friends Academy in Locust Valley, at about $29,000 a year, or the tuition at the Ross School in East Hampton, which is at least $38,000 a year, including fees.
Sister Joanne Callahan, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said that some Catholic parents feel they can send their children to public elementary schools, but when the time comes for high school, they want them in a Catholic institution.
"Many of them have chosen to save money and wait for a Catholic high school," she said. "Many feel that their [public] elementary schools are very good, but they have some concerns about their students going into high school . . . and not having a faith-based" environment.
The Catholic high schools -- the two oldest, Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset and St. Dominic in Oyster Bay, date to 1928 -- are run either by the diocese, religious orders such as the Franciscan and the Marianist brothers, or local parishes. Most of the schools accept non-Catholics if there is space.
To get in, eighth-graders take a common entrance exam in October and can list their top three choices out of the 10 high schools. The Catholic Secondary School Administrators, a principals' group, coordinates dates for open houses and runs ads together.
At St. Anthony's, the $34 million student center, opened in 2009 and paid for through a bond and alumni donations, has upgrades ranging from a state-of-art indoor track to acoustically advanced chorus and band rooms.
Last year, St. Dominic High School opened its $7.5 million science and communications center, funded by an anonymous donor, and is partnering with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientists who work with students.
Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, an all-girls prep school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, has expanded by buying six neighboring houses and knocking down three to build a new sports complex with a turf field. The school has a $5 million endowment.
At McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, where enrollment has gone up 50 percent in the last decade, a $1 million freshwater wetland filtration project -- most of it paid for with state grants -- allowed students to help remediate wetlands.
At Our Lady of Mercy in Syosset, which draws students from 60 districts on the Island, demand for the van taking students from the train station to the campus is so high the school is buying a bus, Gordon said.
"I literally wake up every day excited to come to school," said Brittany Coscio, 17, of Greenlawn, a senior at St. Anthony's. "I walk down the halls with a big smile. I'm going to cry on graduation day."
Phyllis Zagano, a research associate in the Religion Department at Hofstra University and a graduate of Sacred Heart Academy, said, "These are schools that have a commitment to excellence and an ability to screen students. Some public schools are difficult. They have discipline problems you don't find in the Catholic school."
Michael Ledva, whose son is a senior at St. Anthony's and whose daughter is a 2011 graduate, said part of the allure is school uniforms.
"Wearing a uniform is so critical," he said. "It just relieves so much stress. The stress level is so great on young women on how they look. I feel for the girls that come home and worry about what they want to wear the next day."
Others attribute part of the success to intensive after-school programs, keeping many students busy on campus until 6 p.m.
Motivated by a mission
Still, making the decision to send a child to a Catholic high school is not easy, given tuition payments on top of steep property taxes used mainly to fund public schools. Ledva, a financial adviser from St. James, said he drives a 16-year-old car with 246,000 miles on it and hasn't taken a family vacation in at least four years.
"We do it with a smile," he said. "It's well worth every financial sacrifice."
Ledva said St. Anthony's allows him and his wife to be more involved as parents than they might be at a public high school, attending numerous parent-child events, for instance.
One of the schools with substantial enrollment declines, St. Mary's in Manhasset, went from about 1,000 students in 2009 to about 615 now. Administrators said that was part of a deliberate "right-sizing" to create a middle-sized school instead of competing with larger schools.
Another, Holy Trinity in Hicksville, has gone to 1,310 students from about 1,715 in a decade. Education experts said some of the reasons were the "graying" of the Nassau County population, with fewer high school-age students in general, the difficulty of middle-class families paying rising tuition as the economy soured, and an influx of non-Catholic Southeast Asians into the Hicksville area.
Gene Fennell, the school's principal, said it is launching a more aggressive recruiting program and trying to expand the area from which it draws students. Holy Trinity representatives are visiting more grammar schools and increasing advertising to tout the school's attributes.
Leaders of all of the high schools, even those where enrollment has dipped, are optimistic about the future.
"We have a very clear philosophy of educating the heart and the mind, and a very clear mission that the Catholic faith is being transmitted through every classroom and activity and program we run," said Brother Kenneth Hoagland, principal of Kellenberg. "It helps a school be successful when it has a coherent philosophy."