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It’s a preschool boom

Boston-area Catholic schools, hit by shrinking enrollment, find a surging demand for classes for 3- and 4-year-olds

At Our Lady's Academy in Waltham, teacher Katie Pacheco worked earlier this month with Manu Mahenthiraw, 3. (Globe Staff / Suzanne Kreiter) At Our Lady's Academy in Waltham, teacher Katie Pacheco worked earlier this month with Manu Mahenthiraw, 3.
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / November 30, 2010

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Boston-area Catholic schools have discovered a new niche that they hope will help reverse a decades-long decline in student population: preschool.

Enrollment in local Catholic preschool classes this year is up nearly 14 percent over last year and 22 percent over five years ago, as elementary schools in the Boston Archdiocese have added programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and freestanding Catholic preschools have sprung up in response to surging demand.

Principals and administrators say the preschools are attracting working parents, including many non-Catholics, by providing high-quality programs for a lower price than full-time day care, which can easily run more than $10,000 a year.

“For working parents, there is going to be a cost, regardless of whether it’s an academic program or a child-care program,’’ said Russ W. Wilson, regional director of Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, which offers prekindergarten through eighth grade at multiple campuses in Dorchester and Mattapan. “So parents are doing some simple math and realizing that, for an affordable price, they are able to send their child to . . . a full day of academics, socialization, computer skills.’’

Busy parents are also drawn to the extended hours that most Catholic schools offer.

At Pope John Paul II’s Columbia campus in Dorchester, a 3-year-old can be dropped off as early as 6:30 a.m. and can stay as late as 6 p.m. Tuition is $4,700 a year for the full school day program, plus an additional $5 an hour for before- and after-school care. The bill for sending a child five days a week from 7 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. would total nearly $8,000 for the school year.

That may sound steep. But in Massachusetts, sending a 4-year-old to a day-care center full time costs, on average, more than $13,000 a year, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.

The prekindergarten bubble is a rare bit of good enrollment news for Boston’s Catholic schools, where student population has plunged from 153,000 in 1965 to fewer than 42,500 this year. Thanks partly to the surge of young students, the year-over-year decline in local Catholic school enrollment this year was the smallest in a decade, according to the archdiocese — 1.9 percent.

The critical question, those who study Catholic schools say, is whether these new families will keep their children in Catholic schools as they grow older and have the option of attending free public or charter schools.

“That’s our biggest challenge moving forward,’’ said Christopher Flieger, area superintendent for the Boston Archdiocese.

Because the Catholic preschool boom is a relatively recent phenomenon in Boston, it is too soon to know whether the new generation toddling into the parochial system is there to stay.

Enrollment data collected by the National Catholic Educational Association suggest that Catholic schools across the country have had trouble retaining their youngest recruits as they move into kindergarten and first grade, said Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and educational research — mostly because families can’t afford the tuition, which on average costs from $4,000 to $8,000, depending on the grade.

In Boston, Pope John Paul II Academy has seen many of its preschool students stay on past kindergarten, but the academy closed one of its five campuses in Dorchester this fall because of an enrollment decline at that location.

“The fact is that high-quality pre-K is the only sector where we have a price advantage, if you will, compared to other day care,’’ said the Rev. Joseph O’Keefe, dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

Some Catholic educators in the Boston area, however, say they are beginning to see signs that families are coming to stay.

Chandra Minor, principal of Our Lady’s Academy in Waltham, started offering classes for 4-year-olds three years ago; the program was so popular that she added classes for 3-year-olds as well. Overall enrollment in the school, which has 284 students in preschool through eighth grade, jumped by 29 percent this year, she said.

The draw for many parents, she said, is Our Lady’s focus on academics. Even 3-year-olds participate in rudimentary science experiments, begin to learn Spanish, as well as work on pre-literacy and writing skills. Students also receive art, music, gym, and religious instruction.

“At 3 years of age, there is an awful lot of learning that can take place, beyond expectations for children of that age. It’s as academic as you can possibly get,’’ she said.

Valli Prasanna of Waltham chose Our Lady’s for her 3-year-old son, Pranav, because she liked its busy, stimulating environment, and felt her son needed more than the 2 1/2-hour day offered at a nearby secular school she also considered.

“It was like a proper school,’’ she said of Our Lady’s. “They were not killing time by just reading story books and putting them down for a nap.’’

Prasanna, whose family is Hindu, had had a positive experience attending Catholic school in India, and she liked the basic values they sought to instill in children, so she decided to give Our Lady’s a try. She said she quickly felt welcome.

“I met lots of non-Catholic parents who were equally happy,’’ she said. She said she plans to send Pranav there for the rest of elementary school, as long as her family remains in the Boston area.

Mary E. Walsh, a professor at BC’s Lynch School and a trustee of the St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton, said the quality of the preschool curriculum that Boston-area Catholic schools have been implementing in recent years is extremely high.

Since BC began collaborating with the St. Columbkille School five years ago, the school has developed a preschool program that focuses strongly on pre-literacy, pre-arithmetic, and other developmental skills, Walsh said. Parents are responding, she said; in the last several years, the school has added additional first-, second-, and third-grade classes to make room for children who started as preschoolers.

“That suggests that while not all are staying, a significant number are staying,’’ she said. “And that to me is an interesting trend, and bodes well.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.