NEW YORK – When Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer attended Catholic schools in the 1960s, the landscape of Catholic education was such that there were typically only Catholics in Catholic schools, the schools were almost exclusively run by religious, and it was as if every parish had one.

Times have since changed, and those past realities are for most part just that. Hartmayer, though, maintains that Catholic schools are “essential,” and he has now taken the helm of an association that supports and develops Catholic educators, who are now predominantly lay people.

“When I was growing up there were only Catholics in Catholic schools because there were so many of us, and there were so many religious, and it was almost as if every parish had a school,” Hartmayer told Crux. “But things have changed, and have evolved as there are fewer and fewer religious.”

“We now have to ensure the lay people who are teaching our children are steeped in the faith and are educated in the faith, and are also practicing the faith because they’re the role models for students today that the religious were in [my] day,” Hartmayer said.

Hartmayer was elected chair of the board of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) for a three-year term on June 4. Hartmayer has served as a board member of the association – which includes nearly 140,000 educators – for the last three years. He is also passionate about Catholic education, having spent almost all of his first 20 years in the priesthood in the field.

According to the latest NCEA report, national Catholic school enrollment for the preschool-12 grade span remained steady from the 2022-2023 to 2023-2024 school year at about 1.7 million. The steady figure follows two years of growth, which followed years of a downward trend.

Part of the recent upswing for Catholic school enrollment was because many Catholic schools reopened in-person sooner and more efficiently than public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hartmayer said that state parental school choice laws have helped, as well. He also highlighted the harms of social media as factors, and the state of society in general, that have driven parents back to Catholic schools.

“The downward trend has stopped,” Hartmayer said.

“We’re trying to make Catholic leaders through Catholic education, but there are so many stronger forces that are conflicting for children, and make them confused, and they don’t know what the truth is, and so Catholic education helps clarify those mysteries and those conflicts of information that they receive,” Hartmayer added. “I think parents are making all of the sacrifices that they can to provide a Catholic education for their children for those reasons.”

Now stepping into this role with the NCEA, Hartmayer cited a few factors that are paramount to the success of Catholic schools: An unwavering commitment to the Catholic mission, and a reliance on faithful lay Catholics in faculty and key leadership roles.

“The Catholic mission and the Catholic atmosphere in which Catholic education takes place is paramount and it can’t be compromised because Catholic schools have always stood for tradition, and solid teaching, and clarity in dogmatic beliefs in the faith and the practicing of the faith,” Hartmayer said.

Hartmayer said part of the association’s responsibilities are training and formation of Catholic educators so that schools maintain the standard that separate them from public schools in terms of what is being taught, and the atmosphere both inside and outside of the classroom in extracurriculars. To that end, the association holds a leadership summit every year for superintendents, as well as a national convention for teachers and administrators.

As for the importance of lay leadership in Catholic schools, Hartmayer said their value cannot be underestimated because “they are living proof of the Catholic Church in adult living,” adding that they make a tremendous contribution to the Church, and are often as, if not more effective than religious.

“We should never underestimate the value of the laity and their own belief and lifestyle, and their own discipleship because they can be extremely effective, and as effective, I think, as religious,” Hartmayer said. “Being a religious myself I know lay people who are really walking the talk and they are living a very good Catholic life and they are great models for our kids in schools.”

Follow John Lavenburg on X: @johnlavenburg