The Holy Cross Academy is taking a different approach to Catholic education and it's working.

The Holy Cross Academy is taking a different approach to Catholic education and it's working. Enrollment is up almost 4 percent in the Catholic elementary schools throughout Stark County. That's in sharp contrast to Catholic schools across the country which many are seeing a decline in enrollment.

Rev. Msgr. Lewis F. Gaetano said the elementary schools located in the Diocese of Youngstown have seen a steady decline in enrollment since 1998. Plus, there have been 53 elementary schools in the Diocese close since the mid-1950s, with the majority of those closings taking place since 1990.

“We, along with many Diocese across the country, are taking a different approach in order to increase enrollment in Catholic elementary schools, everyone is working together collaboratively to share resources and tell the story of Catholic education” Gaetano said.

“We found we had a system of schools and we wanted a school system. As such, the Holy Cross Academy was formed in 2012 to strengthen our Catholic elementary schools in Stark County and to bring resources together for greater efficiency.”

MISSION, GOALS

 The Holy Cross Academy offers academic excellence and Catholic faith formation to ensure life-long learning and the development of responsible and compassionate citizens. It was formed with three goals in mind:

1. Strengthen the Catholic Elementary Schools in Stark County (10 schools in total)

2. Use human and financial resources more efficiently in the principles of good stewardship

3. Tell the story of Catholic education

The new approach has been working.

Director of Enrollment, Kristie Cramer, said while enrollment is up in the schools overall, the Academy did close one of the eleven elementary schools. St. Joeseph Elementary School in Canton was closed this year. The school had been open for 150 years. At one time, enrollment was 1,200 students. When it closed, enrollment was down to only 100 students.

“It was a very difficult decision to close the St. Joe's school,” Cramer said. “St. Joe's parish is still open. We encouraged the remaining students to enroll in a Catholic school of their choice and 65 percent of those remaining students did transfer to St. Joan of Arc, St. Peter or St. Michael.”

ELEMENTARY CAMPUSES

Gaetano said each of the 10 campuses represented by the Holy Cross Academy continues to have its own uniqueness and personality. Each school is representative of the associated parish.

“Each of our parishes represent a particular demographic which builds the personality of the parish and of the associated school. Each parish has a pastor who brings certain characteristics, personality and gifts. The pastors are highly important to the success of the parish and the school,” Gaetano said.

There are 21 Catholic parishes in Stark County. Ten of those parishes have schools. All ten of those schools are represented by the Academy. Gaetano is the president of the Holy Cross Academy.

The hierarchy of Catholic schools at the local level includes a pastor who is the pastoral leader, there's a primary administrator and a spiritual leader. Each school has a principal who is the chief operating official.

The hierarchy of the Catholic high schools is a bit different. Each high school has a president and a principal and each operate individually as its own school. The Superintendent of Schools is located at the Diocese. While the Catholic high schools in the county aren't part of the Academy, they often times collaborate with the high schools and with the Diocese.

“There are events that the Academy works with one of the Catholic high schools and we also share resources with them,” Cramer said.

ENROLLMENT ON THE RISE

Gaetano attributes the decline in population across the country to some of the decline in enrollment in Catholic education over the past few decades. She said there has been a decline in population in Stark County and “especially in young families with children.”

“Canton City has seen a 25 percent decline in population. Lake and Jackson Townships have seen an increase in population but almost all other areas in the county have seen a decline,” Gaetano said. “Due in part to the population decline and other factors, we've had a 5 percent decline in our Catholic elementary schools for the past several years. The good news is that for the 2014-2015 school year, we've not only stopped the decline, we've increased enrollment by almost 4 percent.”

The Catholic elementary schools have seen several changes and additions over the past couple of years such as partnering with local colleges including Walsh University and Mount Union College to help with music and sports programming. Holy Cross also received a grant from ArtsinStark for $3,500.

“This is the first time we've received a grant from Arts in Stark,” Cramer said. “It will be implemented in two phases. The first phase is for professionals from Arts in Stark to meet with our preschool teachers to instruct them on techniques to implement unique art in the classrooms. Next, we'll implement a section of time to be spent on dramatic performances in our elementary schools.”

Gaetano said that art fits in with the faith-based, religion education because both value imagination and creativity.

“Each child is unrepeatable. When we capture each child's uniqueness, it opens up a wider world for our students,” Gaetano said.

Sports programming at local Catholic elementary schools has also been expanded. Flag football, golf, lacrosse and wrestling have recently been added to available sports options. Students also can choose basketball, cheerleading, cross-country, soccer, track or volleyball.

Cramer said that Central Catholic students have received more than $7.9 million in college scholarships and St. Thomas Aquinas students have received $7.2 million in scholarships throughout the past four years for art and athletics. Scholarships come from colleges all over the United States such as Boston College, Case Western Reserve, Georgetown and Michigan State.

“In the Catholic elementary schools, every student gets playing time and every student gets individual attention to help hone their skills,” Cramer said. “By the time they reach the high school level, they are ready to play. St. Thomas has received the highest amounts of scholarships in Stark County based on student body.”

What has always stayed the same with Catholic schools is the academic side of education.  All of the elementary schools implement 21st-Century learning, students participate in a multitude of community service projects, the teachers are highly qualified and the classrooms are fully equipped with Smart Boards, iPads and Chrome Books.

There are STREAM/STEM programs where religion is integrated into science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Each school offers science labs, computer labs, art rooms, libraries and music rooms. Students attend school mass every week and have the opportunity to participate in daily prayers.

“Catholic schools are cutting edge. We provide a quality education with a focus on Catholic faith,” Cramer said.

AFFORDABLE EDUCATION

Cramer said there are more ways than ever to fund a Catholic education. Parents can select from  voucher programs, scholarships, Diocesan grants, easy payment plans, parish tuition assistance programs or school tuition assistance.

“In addition to all of the special payment options, grants, and voucher programs, we also offer a tuition discount program to practicing Catholic families. We have a strong alumnus and we've seen generations of families attend our schools,” Cramer said.

Gaetano said when they decided to start the Holy Cross Academy, the goal was to bring  Catholic elementary schools together as a school system.

“We've been able to start the Academy from a position of strength,” Gaetano said. “We have been able to share human and other types of resources to tell our story about how good Catholic education is.”

Holy Cross has been able to center its initiatives on marketing each of the elementary schools. Having the Academy has allowed the schools access to grants. And, the Academy has brought the elementary schools together as a school system versus a system of schools.

“Catholic education has always offered a cutting edge education and we've always looked for ways to help families with tuition,” Gaetano said. ‘We've just never talked about it like we are doing now through the Holy Cross Academy. Our mission is academic foundation, human formation and spiritual formation.”