Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Demographic Changes and Parochial Schools

This article elaborates from a previous post about the decline of enrollment at St John School. In 1965 and 1966 St John School enrolled its largest first-grade classes -- 56 and 57 students respectively. As those two large classes rose through higher grades, the school's total enrollment reached a peak in 1970 -- 377 students. In 1973 the enrollment rose to 381, but that was because a ninth grade was added to the school.

After the early 1970s, enrollment declined steadily, even though the school had nine grades until 1991.

This fall of school enrollment corresponds to the decline of the USA's fertility rate

Graph of US Fertility Rate. Image taken from http://seanet.com/~jimxc/Politics/February2006_4.html

and to the decline of the number of children per family.

Graph of Children per Family in the USA. Image taken from http://www.russellsage.org/chartbook/householdform/figure4.5/view

Now I would like to introduce another demographic change that affected the school's enrollment. The mean age of mothers when they gave birth to their first child rose steadily from 21.4 years in the year 1972 to 25.2 years in the year 2003.

Table showing mean age of mother at first birth. Image taken from http://nchspressroom.wordpress.com/2007/04/19/more-for-mothers-day/

For the sake of simplicity, I am going to talk only about births to married couples.

When a woman gave birth to her first child at age 21, then she had married at about age 19 or 20. She probably lived at home and attended high school until she was about 18. She probably had been confirmed at about age 13. In such cases, there was only a short gap in her experience of living at home with her religious family and then starting her own family. If a parochial school with a kindergarten was available when the first child reached the age of five, then the parents were likely to enroll the child there.

In contrast, when a mother gave birth to her first child at age 25, she normally had lived away from her religious family for several years. Perhaps she attended college away from home for a few years and then worked for a few years and then married at about age 23. The baby was born when the woman was 25, and then reached kindergarten age when the mother was 30. In this case 17 years had passed since the woman was confirmed and about 12 years had passed since she lived with her religious family. It was more likely that the woman's religious loyalties had been stretched to the breaking point and so the parents were less likely to enroll the child in the parochial school.

As a person waits longer to get married, the person is more likely to marry outside the family religion. The spouse is more likely to someone who was met farther away from home -- at college, during military service, while working in another town. If a Lutheran marries, for example, a Catholic, then the decision to enroll their child in a parochial school might cause a serious conflict that can be avoided with a compromise of enrolling the child in a public school.

After parents have enrolled their child in a parochial school, it is relatively easy for them to withdraw that child from the school if they have only one child enrolled. If the parents are dissatisfied with a teacher, or if the child is dissatisfied with a teacher or with with the other students or if there seems to be a learning problem, then the parents might feel few qualms about transfering that one child to another school. If the parents have one or more other children enrolled, though, the parents are more likely to maintain their commitment to the parochial school, so that all their children remain together in that school.

This factor can work in the other direction. Parents with a single child in a public school who experience major dissatisfaction are more likely to transfer the child to a private school. Often, though, this brings children with behavior problems into parochial schools. Parents hope that religious education will reform their criminal children.

All the above factors make it difficult for a parochial school to maintain its enrollments. As enrollments continue to decline year after year, the school gradually suffers various degradations. The building becomes older. Physical improvements are postponed. The staff members become older and more stale, and their salaries and professional opportunities stagnate. Staff members and parents feel more discouraged and demoralized. Textbooks and other materials become older. In general, the school projects an image an atmosphere that is increasingly negative. The school seems to be in a vicious, downward spiral.

In contrast, the town's public schools perhaps have grown within the same demographic circumstances. Perhaps the town's population has grown. Perhaps two public schools have been consolidated into one. Perhaps new facilities have been built. Perhaps the salaries and benefits of the public school's staff members have improved.

In these circumstances, the private school's survival becomes more precarious, and any crisis might become a death blow. Or the school might simply sink into unresolvable financial problems.

If, however, the school has a really excellent staff and if the remaining students continue to excel academically and if financial benefactors continue to donate, then the school can survive the hardest times. St John School's enrollment fell below 170 in the year 1930 and remained below 170 through the 1940s. Then, however, the school rode the demographic and economic boom during the 1950s and 1960s to an enrollment of 377 in the year 1970.

Next post: Some reassuring statistics about the LCMS's schools.

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