After watching Roman Catholic schools in poor parts of Orange County close because families could not afford tuition, the Diocese of Orange on Friday announced that it was giving nearly $5 million over two years to schools that Bishop Tod D. Brown said "are struggling for their very existence."
Brown said parochial schools are critical to helping children develop their faith.
"We are convinced there is no better way to enrich, to supplement, to support that initial and continued faith formation given in the family unit," he told hundreds of teachers, administrators and other parochial school officials at a back-to-school convocation at Our Lady of La Vang Church in Santa Ana. "It's because of our commitment to Catholic education that this new effort . . . is being made."
Although enrollment at Orange County's parochial schools has increased more than 3% from a decade ago to nearly 20,000 students, much of the growth is in more affluent South Orange County and at high schools.
Many diocesan elementary schools have seen enrollment dips, particularly in North Orange County. In recent years, three parish schools, St. Boniface in Anaheim, Our Lady of the Pillar in Santa Ana and St. Mary's in Fullerton, have been closed and their students shuffled to nearby schools.
Yearly tuition and fees average $4,391.97 at elementary schools and $9,770.43 at secondary schools.
"In North County, in the poor areas, honestly, people can't afford to send their children to Catholic schools," said Ryan Lilyengren, spokesman for the diocese. "We want [the schools] to be accessible."
The program announced Friday includes four components: Nearly $2.5 million in loans and interest that eight parish schools owe the diocese will be forgiven. More than $1.5 million in tuition assistance will be given to 10 schools over the next two years. The remaining $770,000 will be spent on administration and strategic planning, including hiring a consultant to help the most vulnerable schools balance their finances over the next four to five years, said Father Gerald M. Horan, superintendent of Orange County Catholic schools.
Horan said the diocese had been "preoccupied" with sexual abuse litigation, but with a $100-million settlement paid off and strong returns on investments, it was able to offer the financial aid.
The School of Our Lady in Santa Ana is receiving about $400,000 in debt forgiveness and tuition assistance, said Principal Judy Bloom.
The school opened two years ago when the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Our Lady of the Pillar schools closed, and is housed at the former site of Immaculate Heart. About 200 students attend the school, and there is room for 100 more. Two-thirds of the school's families receive financial aid. Bloom said that with the new funding, the school would be able to help more parents who otherwise couldn't afford to send their children to parochial school.
"It's the most wonderful thing that can happen, because families in our area want this for their children but they can't afford it," Bloom said. "Because of the bishop's insight and vision for Catholic education, we're able to offer that to more of the families in our area, and that's the most wonderful gift you can give a child -- an education."