As Florida Catholic schools grow again, disadvantaged students benefit

Thanks to school choice programs, Catholic schools in Florida can continue to offer high-quality education to students like Camron Merritt. Camron, 7, was struggling in his prior school but is now listening, learning - and making friends. Says his mom, "This school saved my son's life."

Thanks to school choice programs, Catholic schools in Florida are growing again, allowing them to continue to offer high-quality education to students like Camron Merritt. Camron, 7, was struggling in his prior school but is now learning and making friends. Says his mom, “This school saved my son’s life.”

This year, for the fifth year in a row, Catholic schools in Florida did not do what Catholic schools across America are doing. They didn’t close and shrink. They grew.

Behind the trend lines are students like Camron Merritt.

A year ago, Camron, a 7-year-old with emotional scars and learning disabilities, was going from bad to worse in his prior school. Rolling under desks. Mouthing off to his teachers. Getting picked on by other students. A lack of support and communication from school officials further frustrated Camron’s mother, Melissa Merritt. She knew she had to make a change.

She found Saint John Paul II Catholic School, a PreK-8 that recently reversed its own fortunes. She also found that Camron, as a child once in foster care, was eligible for a school choice scholarship that gave her the financial means to enroll him. Eight months later, she said, he’s a different child.

Camron is sitting in class. He’s listening and learning. He’s making friends. The second week of school, he was invited to a birthday party – for the first time ever.

“This school saved my son’s life,” Merrit said. “This scholarship saved my son’s life.”

Fueled by a quartet of pace-setting educational choice programs, Catholic schools in Florida continue to do what thousands of shut-down Catholic schools elsewhere can’t: Provide high-quality options to disadvantaged students.

For Saint John Paul II, the scholarships “made the difference between the school being able to survive, and the parents and kids (in the area) having choices,” said principal John Larkin.

The latest numbers show Florida Catholic school enrollment rose slightly this year, from 84,452 to 85,539 in PreK-12, according to survey data collected by the Florida Catholic Conference last fall. To repeat: That’s five years of growth in a row. The encouraging trend lines hold true even if Pre-K students are out of the mix, with K-12 upticks in four of the last five years.

In Florida, parents of four-year olds can use Pre-K vouchers to send their children to private schools. Parents with special needs-children can use McKay Scholarships or Gardiner Scholarships to cover their tuition. Low-income parents and parents of current or former foster children can also access tax credit scholarships, which are administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

The percentage of Florida Catholic school students using these scholarships has risen steadily, from 4 percent in 2007-08 to 24 percent this year.

As a result, Catholic schools in Florida have, in recent years, enrolled a growing number of children from families that would otherwise struggle to afford a private-school education, and avoided the sad fate of their national counterparts.

In the past decade alone, 1,511 Catholic schools have closed, and enrollment has dropped by 400,000, according to the National Catholic Education Association. The resilience of the Florida schools is even more impressive considering competition from an explosion of new options in the state, including more than 600 charter schools.

SJPIIJames Herzog, associate director for education at the Florida Catholic Conference, said the trend lines offer “a bright ray of hope” for Florida – and useful lessons for those who value Catholic school elsewhere. “Other states could benefit from taking a good hard look at the Florida model,” he said.

They could start with the little school in Citrus County.

Saint John Paul II is 80 miles north of Tampa, the only Catholic school in a slice of Florida best known for its swim-with-the-manatees tourism. Two year ago, the 30-year-old school on the oak-studded campus was on the verge of being closed by the St. Petersburg Diocese.

Enrollment had dwindled to 140, from as many as 300 at the school’s peak. The Great Recession had taken its toll. So had the closing of the Crystal River Nuclear Plant, the county’s largest employer.

But then, an amazing thing happened. The school and community rallied. Parents spread the word, raised money – and let other parents know the school really was an option for many of them.

Saint John Paul II is now on more solid footing, with enrollment expected to top 200 this fall. The number of tax credit scholarship students alone will approach 80, up from 50 to 55 several years ago.

Merritt said she might have been able to enroll Camron without the scholarship, but it probably would have meant loans for tuition. She’s a victim’s advocate for the sheriff’s office. Her husband is a pest control worker. They plan to adopt another foster child.

For Camron, she said, the school couldn’t be more right.

When issues arise, she said, officials notify her immediately, and partner with her on a game plan. One time, Mr. Larkin himself worked 1-on-1 with Camron for two hours.

Camron needs and likes the regimented scheduling, she said. The faith component adds boundaries and empathy. The academic offerings, from computer programming to theater production, are a plus, too. (The school is in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate middle school. In this era of choice and competition, Larkin said, “You have to make the school a destination.”)

For Merritt and her son, there’s also a big intangible: An atmosphere that, to her, is far more family-oriented and tight-knit than it was at Camron’s previous school.

Merritt and other moms talk daily. They schedule play dates. When Camron is absent, they text her: Where is he? Everything ok?

“It makes me cry when I think about it,” she said.

This sense of community isn’t unique to Saint John Paul II. But parents know when they have it good.

Trend lines suggest Florida does, too.

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One Response to As Florida Catholic schools grow again, disadvantaged students benefit

  1. Laura Terrebonne June 23, 2016 at 10:11 am #

    I love this story and I’m so happy this little boy found what he needs in s Catholic school. Now, many more catholic schools need to get on board! Just saying that special needs kids are welcome here isn’t enough. These schools need to actually try harder to help these kids who’s scholarship money is paying for them to be there!