DARLINGTON, Wis. — For the past five years, Holy Rosary Catholic School in Darlington has enjoyed slow but steady enrollment growth.

At the small, private, elementary school, however, even small changes in enrollment can translate to big gains.

With 79 students this fall, enrollment is up 27% since the 2014-2015 school year. That is the largest percentage increase among private and accredited nonpublic schools in the area for which the Telegraph Herald obtained data.

“We’ve just been trying to get out into the community a little bit more so that we’re more visible,” Principal Tanya Horne said.

Enrollment trends at such schools in the tri-state area have been a mixed bag over the past five years. That comes as Catholic school enrollment has been declining nationwide but overall private school numbers have grown.

“Is there work to be done? Always,” said Kim Hermsen, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. “Are there challenges? Absolutely. But we’re optimistic, and part of that has to do with the mission-driven purpose of our work.

Wider trendsOf the 22 private and accredited nonpublic schools for which the Telegraph Herald obtained data, 12 have had a dip in enrollment over the past five years, while eight notched gains and one showed no change. St. Mary School in Platteville, Wis., reopened just more than a year ago.

Most local private and nonpublic schools are Catholic-affiliated. Nationwide, enrollment in Catholic schools declined 8.3% from the 2012-2013 school year to the 2017-2018 school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

“It’s something that Catholic schools as a whole across the country are trying to figure out,” said Rebecca Mueller, director of enrollment for Holy Family Catholic Schools in Dubuque.

The system’s enrollment is down 5.5% over the past five years, to 1,846 this fall. Last month, members of the system’s Board of Education announced the decision to end elementary programming at Holy Ghost Elementary School and to end St. Anthony Elementary School’s English-based program as of the 2020-2021 school year.

Hermsen said a variety of factors can impact enrollment numbers at area schools, including trends in the parishes to which schools are connected.

“In some areas, there’s a lot of new housing starts,” Hermsen said. “In other places, there is an aging population. There aren’t as many new families.”

In some cases, local economic pressures have taken their toll. St. Charles Catholic School in Cassville, Wis., has just nine students this fall, and officials plan to close the campus at the end of the school year.

Michael Lancaster, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Madison, connected the school’s enrollment decline with wider population declines following the closure of the Cassville power plant.

Lancaster likewise noted that trends such as smaller family sizes and rural population declines also play a role in trends at all schools.

Nationwide, private school enrollment rose 9.4% from fall 2011 to fall 2015, the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That growth was largely driven by other religious and nonsectarian schools.

At Tri-State Christian School in Asbury, Iowa, the current enrollment is even with five years ago, at 126 students. However, enrollment is up significantly from last year, when it sat at 98 students. Forty-eight students are new to Tri-State Christian this year, according to Principal Amy Rush.

Rush tied that increase with the school’s move from Galena, Ill., last year.

“It’s been neat to talk with many different families that have maybe never heard of us before, but maybe they’ve heard about us from neighbors,” Rush said. “And now that we’re here, it’s something that they are excited to consider.”



Regardless of their respective recent enrollment trends, area school leaders are working on ways to retain and draw in more families.

Archdiocese of Dubuque officials are working with staff at 30 schools to write campus-specific strategic plans this year with goals and action steps. In subsequent years, they will work on enrollment, communications and development plans.

“The hope is that there are many good things that are happening but that this will enhance those various aspects and more fully coordinate planning for the future,” Hermsen said.

Officials at Aquin Catholic Elementary School in Cascade, Iowa, are focusing on polishing their mission and vision statements so they can chart out their strategic-planning process. Enrollment is up 8% over the past five years, to 288 this fall.

At La Salle Catholic School in Holy Cross, Iowa, officials hope the strategic-planning process will help them identify how they can continue improving, Principal Susan Hucker said. La Salle’s enrollment is down 48% over five years after the school’s junior high closed in 2015.

“We are just getting underway in this process, so we’ve had a couple of meetings and looking at things like our mission and vision and really assessing where we’re at and where we want to go next,” Hucker said.

At Tri-State Christian, officials seek to create more space to continue growing the enrollment. They recently started a fundraising campaign.

“We would love to continue to grow and to get as large as 200 to 250 students,” Rush said. “It will take a little bit of time, but we think it is something that is very possible.”

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