Tomorrow, a presidential spotlight will shine on Florida’s Catholic school renaissance.
President Donald Trump is set to visit St. Andrew Catholic School, a budding success story in Orlando’s Pine Hills neighborhood.
It’s one of four Greater Orlando Catholic schools that have joined the Notre Dame ACE academies, a national network that aims to revitalize urban Catholic education and lift academic outcomes.
Bucking trends elsewhere in the country, Florida’s Catholic schools are growing, slowly but steadily. National organizations have noticed. There are now seven ACE Academies in Florida, with more on the way. Other Catholic school networks, like Cristo Rey high schools, are expanding in the state.
Thanks to the nation’s largest private school choice program, they’re able to serve growing numbers of low-income and working class students.
Statewide, more than 98,000 students use Florida tax credit scholarships. The typical parent who uses a scholarship is a single mother earning less than $25,000 a year. Annual program evaluations show students who use the program tend to be among the most disadvantaged children in the state, and tend to struggle academically in public schools. After receiving scholarships, they make academic gains that match their national peers from all income levels.
St. Andrew is home to more than 340 students in grades Pre-K-8. Roughly 85 percent of them use tax credit scholarships. The school sits in the middle of the 32808 ZIP code, where nearly 1,175 children in the ZIP code use the tax credit scholarship program – the single largest concentration in the state.
The school serves a representative cross-section of its community. More than two-thirds of its students are black. A majority are not Catholic. Carol Brinati, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Orlando, said they come to St. Andrew looking for a safe environment and strong academics built on a foundation of faith.
“We provide them, as people of God, with the best possible education,” she said.
Aaron Brenner, the national director of the ACE Academies, said urban Catholic schools have a long tradition of educating children from a variety of religious backgrounds.
“Our focus is providing an excellent education, and I think we do welcome and invite all families,” he said. “We’re a welcoming, open, inclusive community, and so any family around the area that would choose to attend St. Andrew, we would invite them in, with open arms.”
ACE schools emphasize a strong culture that pushes all students toward twin goals of college and heaven.
Pine Hills is home to a public school renaissance, too. It’s the home of Evans High School, a community school created by Orange County Public Schools and other institutions in Central Florida. It provides students and their families with wraparound services from after-school tutoring to medical care.
Since Evans was rebuilt and converted to a community school, achievement has improved. Enrollment is on the rise. It’s become a model, widely cited by teachers unions and other advocates for public education.
Photo credits: Renee Stoeckle.