07/29/2011 06:27 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2011

As Catholic Schools Decline In Northeast, Parents Face Tough Choices

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When Anna Marie Osso tells people about Our Lady of Victory Academy in New York's Westchester County, she starts by recounting all the time and effort that went into the decision to send her daughter there. The process began in 2008, when her daughter, Gabriella, then in the seventh grade, first visited the school. "Although it was a little too early to make a decision," Osso wrote in a recent email, "her mind was completely set."

In 2009, Osso and her husband went to an open house, where administrators gave the school glowing reviews. "There was never an indication that the school was in financial distress," she said. "Our mind was made up."

For the first few months of 2010, Osso and her husband couldn't have been more pleased with their choice. "There was a lot of school spirit," she wrote. Gabriella made the varsity soccer team and did well in class. "Then in January," she said, "we were hit with a ton of bricks."

That month, Osso and the other parents of students at Our Lady learned that the school would be closing. When they presented letters to the Board of Trustees in an attempt to get its members to change their minds, Osso said, they were told that the school was slated to close and that nothing could be done about it. (Sisters of Mercy, the organization that runs the school, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) Gabriella had to begin looking for another school. She's "a bit apprehensive that this could happen again," Osso said.

It very well might. Over the past five years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association, the number of Catholic schools in the country has fallen from 7,589 to 6,980. There have been 172 closings or consolidations in just the past year, many of them in northeast states.

New York has been especially hard hit. In January, the same month that Osso learned of Our Lady’s closing, the Archdiocese of New York announced that 27 of the schools they subsidize would close their doors for good in June. If you count several schools that did not receive funding from the Archdiocese, including Our Lady of Victory, the list of New York Catholic schools that have closed this year tops off at more than 30.

Mark Gray, a research associate with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an organization at Georgetown University that conducts social science studies about the Catholic church, attributed the decline to several overlapping issues. "One is the economy," he said. Another is a shift in demographics that reaches back at least to the 1960s. "In the Northeast and the Midwest, there's been a series of school closings for the last decades in urban areas," he said. "These tend to be institutions that were created by immigrant communities. Now there's not the same population, or the same population with children, in those areas. They either move to the suburbs or the sunbelt."

He also brought up the fact that there are fewer clergy serving as teachers and administrators. "When you have to take on lay staff members," he said, "you have to take on new responsibilities, like salaries and benefits and staying competitive with other schools. You have to raise your tuition. Some parents will lose the ability to afford the school. You're in a spiral."

It will surprise few that there are other factors in the closings as well -- dark ones. In at least one case, a New York school had to close when the religious order that ran it went bankrupt because of payments it was making to victims of sexual abuse by the order's members.

The Archdiocese of New York first revealed that it would be shuttering schools last fall, when it announced a plan called "Pathways to Excellence." According to Fran Davies, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, officials adopted the plan after realizing that, over time the organization wouldn’t be able to sustain the levels of financial support required by schools with low enrollment numbers. "There had to be some actions taken so we could move forward with the strategic planning process and there could be a long-term solution for Catholic education," she said.

Davies said that the organization's ultimate goal in closing the schools is to secure "a sustainable future for Catholic education." In the meantime, though, students will be left to secure their own educational futures. Several of the schools that closed this year were in poor neighborhoods. If the children who attended those school hope to continue reaping the benefits of a Catholic education -- which, for low-income families, is often the only alternative to a public school system that leaves much to be desired -- they may end up with morning commutes that resemble that of 17-year-old Sigfrido Sepulveda of Washington Heights, who wakes up every morning in time to catch a 5:47 a.m. train from Penn Station.

He goes to St. Anthony's Catholic School in South Huntington, N.Y., 35 miles from home.

"It's worth the trip," he says. "People told me it would be impossible to make friends. That's not true; there are plenty of people here who I share a common interest with."

For now at least, St. Anthony's doesn't appear to be in danger of closing.