Florida Catholic schools hold their own in sea of school choice

Ron Matus

Students at St. James Catholic School in North Miami, along with thousands of students at Catholic schools across the country, will celebrate National Catholic Schools Week this year from Jan. 27-Feb. 2.

Editor’s note: Catholic Schools Week, sponsored by the National Catholic Educational Association, is celebrated this year from Jan. 27-Feb. 2. Through events such as open houses and other activities for students, families, parishioners and community members, schools focus on the value that Catholic education provides to young people as well as its contribution to local communities. This year’s theme is Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.

NORTH MIAMI, Fla. – In the car line at St. James Catholic School, nursing assistants, housekeepers and taxi drivers stop-and-go their compacts, sending a steady pulse of students in monogrammed navy sweaters and iconic plaid skirts toward the school’s courtyard. At 7:40 a.m. sharp, 400 strong stop to recite the Pledge of Allegiance over the roar on nearby I-95 and listen to their principal pray for peace.

If Catholic schools in America are supposed to be disappearing, somebody forgot to tell St. James.

The school has 468 students in PreK-8.

That’s a third more than five years ago. That’s triple what it had 20 years ago. This school year, St. James added four modular classrooms to accommodate growth.

What makes the rise even more noteworthy is St. James is awash in an ever-expanding sea of educational choice. In the choice-iest school district in arguably the choice-iest state, parents have the power to pick from a dizzying menu of district schools, charter schools and private schools, many of them high-quality and tuition free. Yet they flock to this throwback Catholic school with its name hand-painted on the administration building and a Black Madonna in the lobby.

“I love it, I love it, I love it!” said Fabiola Boutin, an admissions counselor at a small college who chose St. James for sons Kemar, 9, and Kris-Noah, 6. “When you see St. James students versus the other students, you can tell they’re different. It’s the way they talk. The way they act. The vocabulary. If I couldn’t put them (my sons) in St. James, I would go back to Haiti.”

In Florida, a bustling Catholic school like St. James isn’t unusual. For a decade, enrollment in Florida Catholic schools has held steady around 85,000, and, in seven of the last eight years, has actually risen slightly. The exception – a modest drop this year – is due mostly to an enrollment decline in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. That program (administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog) serves nearly 100,000 students and has, for the first time, hit a wall in fundraising.

St. James has 410 students on scholarship, up from 302 five years ago. About 90 percent are of Haitian descent. The vast majority of their parents would not have been able to afford tuition without the scholarship. Most are paying $500 to $600 a year with it.

They had other options.

Miami-Dade is a poster child for the new normal in public education. Nearly 70,000 students attend charter schools. About 30,000 attend private schools using state-backed choice scholarships. At least 100,000 attend district magnet schools. By some estimates, nearly 70 percent of all PreK-12 students in Miami-Dade now attend something other than their zoned neighborhood school.

Within 4 miles of St. James there are at least seven magnet schools, specializing in everything from robotics and law studies to museums and expressive dance; at least six charter schools, including two that earned A grades from the state; and at least seven private schools that accept the tax credit scholarship, including a Montessori school, a Lutheran school with 300 scholarship students, and another Catholic school. Expand the radius a few more miles, and plenty of other choices surface on the grid. A new KIPP charter school, for example, is 15 minutes away.

The 66-year-old St. James is off-white with butterscotch trim, flanked by swaying palms. The neighborhood it helps anchor is Haitian and Dominican, Filipino and Nicaraguan, black and Puerto Rican. It’s hard to miss the occasional sagging fence amid banyan and bougainvillea. At the same time, it’s impossible to miss families in their Sunday best, emerging from homes of weathered stucco.

St. James doesn’t come with a lot of frills. Some Catholic schools in Florida are responding to the competition by adding on. Some do IB. Some bolstered their STEM programs. Some have partnered with the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame. But even with its 1-to-1 iPad ratio in grades 5-8, St. James is old school.

So why do so many parents choose it?

Because it’s old school. Many parents still want a classic Catholic education for their kids, like millions have for generations. They like that faith, character and academics are aligned. They like that structure, discipline and high expectations are a given. (Were more scholarships available to middle-income families, demand would be even more obvious. But that’s a story for another day.)

“Good manners … good foundation,” said Lucdina Doriscar, the mother of two St. James students who does cleaning work at the airport.

She and other St. James parents repeatedly say the school is like family.

“People can feel that,” said Sister Stephanie Flynn, an educator for 40 years, the principal of St. James for 10. “When you’re part of a big county thing, it’s really hard for parents to know their school. In a Catholic school, you know you’re part of that community.”

According to Flynn, about 75 percent of St. James students will matriculate to Catholic high schools, most to Monsignor Edward Pace in Miami Gardens. The rest will go to public high schools, mostly magnets and charters. To those who still think choice pits public versus private, the reality on the ground in a choice-rich place like Miami-Dade suggests something more organic and complementary.

Parents can’t help but spread the word.

Last week, one St. James parent spoke about the school at an MLK Day event with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Ghismide Saint Jean, whose 6-year-old Josiah is one of 13,000 students on a waiting list for the tax credit scholarship, said she’s working 10 to 14 hours a day as a waitress to keep him at St. James. She said she chose it over the neighborhood school because it’s smaller and more nurturing, which is important because Josiah’s lung problems require frequent hospitalizations. “I can’t imagine him being in another school,” she told the crowd. “And neither can he.”

Fabiola Boutin said she selected St. James because, “I’m picky.”

She researched several charter schools but deemed them too stressful. She considered another Catholic school but liked that St. James puts more emphasis on teaching English. She considered district schools but found St. James more welcoming.

“When you drop off your kids, they say, ‘Good morning.’ It’s not that way everywhere,” Boutin said. “I just feel more connected here. They (my kids) are home when they’re here.”

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