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DEAN RODNEY PIERRE-ANTOINE (right) greets students in the morning at St. Martin de Porres.
This is the first of two parts.

OAKLAND - TWO YEARS ago, as the shuttered St. Cyril-Louis Bertrand school building was being prepared for its new identity, the crosses came down and the statues of Mary were removed from the alcoves made to hold them.

Despite the staff's best efforts to keep it open, the 77-year-old Catholic elementary school in East Oakland's Millsmont neighborhood closed in 2004. A public charter school opened in its place, with the same principal and many of the same children.

The principal, Diana Adams, said the families of her students no longer have the burden of tuition payments. Public and foundation money allows her to do things at Millsmont Academy she couldn't have dreamed of under the budget constraints of Oakland's Catholic schools, in which she had worked since the early 1970s.

Still, she said, "When you serve somewhere for more than 30 years, and you see the schools close, one by one, there is definitely a sadness."

In the late 1960s, some 6,500 Oakland children began each school day with the sign of the cross and a prayer. That number has diminished to 1,700. The city once had 18 Catholic elementary schools. Now only eight remain.

For decades, Catholic elementary schools across the country have been shrinking in number and in size. The Diocese of Oakland, which includes all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, is no exception. But in the city of Oakland, Catholic school enrollment has taken a breathtaking slide.

In the last five years alone, Oakland's Catholic elementary school population has dropped by more than a third.


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Between 2000 and 2005, the city lost its Catholic elementary school students at twice the rate of other large urban areas in the United States, according to reports from the Oakland diocese and data published in a recent special edition of Momentum, a journal of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Theories about Oakland's recent exodus abound, from low birth rates and high Bay Area housing prices to the national clergy sex abuse scandal that tarnished the church's reputation. Some note the city's public school system has shrunk dramatically as well.

Whatever the demographic or institutional causes of the decline, the growing number of empty desks has caused school and church leaders to think hard about the future of Catholic education, especially in urban areas — and how it can be saved.

"I'm not optimistic that the schools will continue in the way they are and in the form they are unless some major changes are made," said Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, a former diocesan superintendent who is now principal of St. Elizabeth Elementary School in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood.

Catholic schools will have to offer excellent academic programs and be affordable to low-income families, even as resources become scarcer,

Hennessy said. And, she added, the church needs to respond more quickly to the demographic shifts of its community — such as the movement of many Bay Area families to outlying areas and the influx of Latino immigrants, many of whom are Catholic.

For generations, Catholic schools have served wave after wave of immigrants. But though Latinos soon will make up the largest group of Catholics in the United States, just 3 percent of Latino families send their children to Catholic schools, according to a report published this month by the Notre Dame Task Force on Catholic Education.

Catholic educators say immigrants from Latin America tend to see the schools as an institution for the wealthy, as it is in their home countries.

"It was not part of the educational experience," said the Rev. Jay Matthews of East Oakland's St. Benedict Church. "When families realized they could really afford to send their children to Catholic schools, there was still a hesitation."

Mark DeMarco, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Oakland, said the school system needs to work on its outreach.

"We've not done a great job of marketing," DeMarco said. "We always assumed they would come to us because we're Catholic schools."

Tuition goes up ... and up

In the 1950s and 60s, Catholics were expected to send their kids to the parish school, which they did for a negligible fee. But by the early 1970s, lay teachers started to replace the Dominican, the Holy Cross and the Holy Names sisters. (Now, fewer than 4 percent of the nation's Catholic elementary school teachers are nuns.) Faced with paying an increasing number of lay teachers, schools began raising tuition.

That, some say, drove away poor and working class families whom urban Catholic schools have historically served.

Children from low-income families still fill most of the seats in Oakland's Catholic elementary school classrooms. St. Martin de Porres, the last Catholic elementary school in West Oakland, has a sliding scale, in which families pay from $550 to $3,900 per year. Other programs, such as Family Aid-Catholic Education and the San Francisco-based Bay Area Scholarships for Inner-City Children, award tuition grants to thousands of needy elementary and high school students.

Even with the help, families still must make sacrifices to give their children a Catholic education. When parochial schools were seen as the only alternative to the public school system for the working poor, more people were willing to do whatever it took to send their children there, even if they weren't Catholic.

Some families say the religious values, structure and academic reputation of Catholic schools are worth the sacrifice. But another alternative — one with a much shorter history — has come to town. And it is free.

Publicly funded, independently run charter schools are opening all over Oakland, drawing children who might have otherwise attended district or Catholic schools. At least three of them — Millsmont Academy, Monarch Academy and the East Bay Conservation Corps — have opened at former Catholic school sites.

Catholic educators seem to regard charter schools as both a rival and a partner. They know they need to distinguish their storied educational system if they expect to stay in business. But they also see new opportunities available to children in inner-city neighborhoods.

After St. Cyril-Louis Bertrand closed, many were relieved to hear a charter school would open in its place.

Schools feel financial strain

Although tuitions have risen, they don't cover the cost to educate a child. Figures from the National Catholic Educational Association show the average tuition for elementary school is $2,607, while the per-pupil cost is $4,268.

And urban parishes, which used to subsidize their parochial schools, rarely do so anymore. With Mass attendance and collections down, they simply don't have the resources. School mergers also have made parochial schools less common. St. Martin de Porres, for example, was created in 1996 from three schools.

The Diocese of Oakland provides subsidies to about 10 struggling urban schools. But some don't receive a penny.

DeMarco said it's time to start looking for new sources of funding. "We'd love to get a huge endowment started for Catholic education," he said.

But until then, the financial strain will continue to thrust principals into the role of fundraiser, tuition manager and CFO. It will leave them less time to focus on academics and discipline, the bedrocks of Catholic education.

Quality is key

When Sister Barbara Dawson came to West Oakland's St. Martin de Porres in 2003 to save it from closing, she quickly observed few of the teachers had credentials and the middle school lacked structure.

Then it dawned on her: The school had to do more than just raise money and recruit students. It had to shore up its product. Now, all the teachers — many of them new to the school — are fully certified, and the atmosphere has improved, she said.

As the financial pressures mount, educators say, it is important that learning doesn't become lost in efforts to balance the budget.

At St. Elizabeth Elementary School last semester, children in Margie Ratto's third-grade class pumped their fists after spelling "instead," "recycle" and "nightmare" in a bee. In Tajma Evan's seventh-grade classroom, questions about Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" were written on the board.

"Why is making money the only thing Scrooge cares about?" was one.

Outside, children played in a large vegetable garden, where they have class twice a month. The garden is surrounded by the "Ecological Stations of the Cross." Instead of images of Christ's crucifixion, each station offers a bilingual lesson on humanity and the environment.

Hennessy, the principal, said the church and the community need to find a way to keep St. Elizabeth and other schools open, years from now.

"But it can't happen without quality," she said. "If you have a Catholic school that's not quality, then they shouldn't call it Catholic."

In the years leading up to St. Cyril-St. Louis Bertrand's closure, Adams said, she had no funding for teacher training or supplies, and she was under pressure to eliminate physical education, art and music. In fact, she said, her refusal to "be strictly bare-bones" created a substantial deficit before the school closed.

"The quality was diminishing because the resources were diminishing," she said.

When the elementary school changed hands, its budget grew by more than one-third. With its new identity came a narrower focus on college preparation. Instead of religion class, children attend a "life skills affirmation" program. Instead of prayers, they say positive thoughts.

But when visitors come and see the orderly building and the well-behaved students, Adams said, "They ask me, 'Is this still a Catholic school? Because it feels like it.'"