St. Thomas the Apostle School goes back to the past.
From the October, 2019 issue
After decades of sex scandals and secularization, participation in American Catholicism is down by nearly half over the last two decades: priests are performing half as many baptisms, First Communions, and weddings. That decline extends to the church's once-huge educational system: enrollment in grade schools is down 49 percent.
St. Thomas school is feeling it. Founded in 1868, it reached its peak in the 1960s with up to 300 students from kindergarten through high school in its eighteen classrooms. But Father Gabriel Richard High School moved to Domino's Farms in 2003, and newer Catholic schools like St. Francis, Huron Valley, and Spiritus Sanctus--plus charter schools, home schools, and the Ann Arbor Public Schools--drew away younger students.
When enrollment fell to 125 two years ago, the school decided to change direction. Instead of mimicking public schools' curriculum with added religion classes, they adopted a classical educational model, including Latin and daily Mass attendance. "You can't keep doing what you're doing and expect different results," explains development director Larry Nienhaus.
Response to the change a year later was positive. "We conducted a parents' survey," says Tim DiLaura, head of school. "We had a statement 'classical education is a valuable option for our Catholic community.' And with 'agree' being a four and 'highly agree' being a five, the average response was a 4.4."
That response, however, came from the parents of the just sixty students representing thirty-four families. The rest had gone elsewhere, mainly to the other area Catholic schools.
St. Thomas's leaders say they weren't worried.
"There are 100-plus Catholic schools across the country that have gone this route," says Nienhaus. "We have not found anywhere it has failed. The Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids was at about sixty-five students [when they] decided to make the change, and they're at 300-plus students today with an added high school, and they continue to grow."
Annual in-parish tuition starts at $6,000, with reduced rates for families enrolling multiple kids. That doesn't cover all
costs, but St. Thomas Catholic Church pastor Bill Ashbaugh says every Catholic school requires subsidies. "We can financially support the school," Ashbaugh says. "It's no problem at all." The parish retired all its debt in 2015 and has since undertaken $1.4 million in capital projects.
Classical Catholic education draws on foundational texts of Western civilization. In first grade, DiLaura says, students read "classical works written in an age-appropriate way, so children can be exposed to the cultural stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey in K-1 then repeat that in fifth grade in a more age-appropriate way." (There's an extended explanation on its website, sta2.org
Latin also comes in at fifth grade, but along with pagan Greeks and Romans, Catholicism is there from the start. "We have a beautiful religious formation program, and that is a part of the curriculum," DiLaura says. "But our teachers are very gifted in being able to relate God's revealing himself in the patterns that you see in the world, patterns in science, in math, [and in] seeing God act through history."
As proof of the program's impact, DiLaura points to the students' standardized test scores. "We compared fall to winter," he says. "We had eighteen tests, reading and math in nine grades, and in thirteen out of the eighteen the average score was at or above the ninety-fourth percentile. In ten they were at the ninty-ninth percentile."
And this year, DiLaura says, "we've turned a corner." By late August, they'd enrolled seventy students, he says, and "we always pick up a few after school starts.
"It's our first increase in seven years," he says with relief. "And we've expanded to one more classroom."
[Originally published in October, 2019.]
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