NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Across the Diocese of Nashville, students from preschool through high school are loading up their backpacks, putting on new uniforms and heading into a new school year.
And this year, the total number of students making that trek to a diocesan school is on the rise.
“We are currently expecting 4,868 students in our diocesan Catholic schools in the next couple weeks as students return to the classroom,” said Rebecca Hammel, superintendent of schools. “This is an increase of 320 students, a growth of 7.04 percent over last year’s opening day enrollment.”
A big chunk of the growth is coming from Pope John Paul II Preparatory School, which is adding grades six through eight this year. Pope Prep will have 198 middle school students, 64 percent of whom are new to the Catholic school system, Hammel said.
But other schools in the diocese are seeing rising numbers of students, she said.
“Our elementary schools are experiencing the majority of growth, with increases as high as 34 percent over opening day last year,” Hammel told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper. “Six of our 14 PK-8 grade schools are increasing at 5 percent or better.”
Among the schools seeing sharp increases is St. John Vianney School in Gallatin, Tennessee, with an enrollment that ballooned from the low 60s early in the summer to more than 100 by the time school opened Aug. 9.
“It’s definitely a very refreshing energy that’s flowing through right now,” said Natalie Eskert, St. John Vianney’s principal. “The parents are excited, the faculty are excited. We’re thriving.”
Jumps in enrollment at other schools in The Tennessee diocese include: a 14.38 percent increase at St. Henry School in Nashville; 12.68 percent at Sacred Heart School in Lawrenceburg; and 8.76 percent at St. Rose of Lima School in Murfreesboro.
“We have the room to grow, so we have made concerted efforts over the last couple years to tell our good stories and families are responding,” Hammel said. “We are also reaping the benefits of families moving to Middle Tennessee.”
St. Rose is one of the schools that has seen its enrollment boosted by both growth in the area and its reputation for academic excellence.
“This time last year we were at 329, and right now we have fully registered 366 with six more in the application process,” said Dominican Sister Catherine Marie, who is entering her fifth year as the principal at St. Rose. A third of the growth is the result of new families moving to the area, she said.
On top of that, St. Rose is benefiting from a good reputation in the community, Sister Catherine Marie said. “We had a lot of happy parents this year,” she said. “They’re our best promoters, and the word is out we’ve got a good school.”
“Catholic schools are the gems in our community,” Hammel added. “We are far more affordable than most private schools, we are committed to preserving the innocence and well-being of our children, and we enthusiastically partner with parents, recognizing they are their children’s first educators.
“Above all, we focus on teaching all that is good, true and beautiful in the world,” she said. “As communities committed to these tenets, we help our children know they are God’s masterpiece, and he has a grand plan for each and every one and will never abandon them.”
“Today’s world can be difficult to navigate, but when we have that relationship with Jesus Christ, all things are possible. I can therefore think of no better gift to offer our young brothers and sisters,” Hammel said.
“Christ is the heart of our school,” echoed Sister Catherine Marie. “The children know it, the teachers know it, our parents know it, and our parishioners support it.”
“We’re focused on the dignity of the human person,” the Dominican sister said. “In the way we deal with parents as well as the respect we show and the communication we have with the parents as the primary educators is key, and that resonates with a lot of people. The track record of Catholic schools is strong.”
At St. John Vianney, nearly every grade has seen an increase, with the biggest boost coming in its prekindergarten program. Previously, the 3- and 4-year-olds were in the same classroom. But this year, the school had to split them into separate classes and hired a new teacher and aide for the preK-3 class, Eskert said.
St. John Vianney, like other growing schools, has benefited from efforts to spread the word about the school in the community.
“I have worked very hard regarding marketing the school, making sure our website gets visibility and making sure our name is out there in the community,” Eskert said.
She and her staff have been visiting parishes without schools to invite parents to tour the school and promoting St. John Vianney at area preschools, she said.
The school also has upgraded the technology used in the classrooms, Eskert said, including giving every student access to a Chromebook laptop when they are in class, installing Newline interactive touch displays with 75-inch screens, and creating a new STEM lab. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
St. Rose has found success drawing students from the parish’s growing Hispanic community, Sister Catherine Marie said.
“We’ve worked hard to provide outreach to that community, and they have been very responsive and they’ve been a wonderful addition to our school community,” Sister Catherine Marie said. This year, 22 percent of the students at St. Rose are Hispanic.
St. Rose’s pastor Father John Sims Baker has made a similar outreach to the Hispanic community, and the parish now has two associate pastors, Father Juan Carlos Garcia-Mendoza and Father Edwuin Cardona, who are fluent in Spanish, Sister Catherine Marie noted.
“We find our Hispanic community is extremely devout and willing to make sacrifices for the education of their children,” Sister Catherine Marie said.
“When people have good experiences, they tell others,” she added.
Telli is managing editor of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.