Note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the National Catholic Educational Association.
ELYRIA — For 160 years, St. Mary School on Fourth Street has offered a faith-based education to local families. It has been around so long, one of its buildings was the original location of Elyria Catholic High School, school officials said.
Its current enrollment is 111 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. That’s 19 short of what school officials say they need to keep the doors open.
“We’d like it to be 130, and 150 would be awesome,” Principal Sharon Urig said Thursday.
And while 19 students “shouldn’t be a big deal, it’s a huge deal,” she said.
Class sizes at St. Mary are small. The largest class this year is 17 students, and the smallest is seven, Urig said. There is an approximate 10-to-1 ratio of teachers to students.
There’s value in a faith-based Catholic education, she said, along with before- and after-school events where working parents can send their children. There’s also once-a-week Mass, math, STEM, drama and other clubs, as well as service initiatives benefiting Blessing House children’s crisis care center and the Genesis House domestic violence shelter, among many other opportunities.
There are 110 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Cleveland, including three in Elyria: Elyria Catholic High School, St. Mary and St. Jude. St. Mary and St. Jude historically have served as feeder schools for Elyria Catholic.
In Lorain County, there also are St. Joseph in Amherst and St. Joseph in Avon Lake, St. Anthony of Padua in Lorain, another St. Mary and Holy Trinity in Avon, St. Peter in Lorain and St. Peter in North Ridgeville, according to the diocesan website.
No one at the diocese could be reached for comment on its schools.
The trend of Catholic school closings in the United States is not new. Since 2000, about 2,300 Catholic schools have closed, according to the National Catholic Educational Association, while hundreds more consolidated. Between 2008 and 2018, another 297 schools opened.
Enrollment at all Catholic schools fell more than 19 percent over the last 10 years, by more than 435,000 students, the NCEA reported. Elementary school enrollment in particular fell 27.5 in urban dioceses and 19.4 percent in the rest of the country.
Tuition at St. Mary is about $5,150 per year, though it may be significantly less or at no cost with scholarships or tuition assistance from Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship, or EdChoice, program.
The state program allows students at underperforming public schools the opportunity to attend participating private schools, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Some parents may automatically qualify for EdChoice or EdChoice Expansion, if they do not make more than 200 percent over poverty level, Urig said.
Busing is provided from Wellington, Keystone and Midview school districts and the Elyria Boys & Girls Club at 1821 Middle Ave., Urig said.
To help raise interest in the St. Mary education, the school is introducing Tuesday tours. Between 1 and 6 p.m., visitors are welcome to go to the school at 237 Fourth St., talk to staff and see if it is the right fit for their child or children.
“People can come in off the street if they want, and if we’ve got time we’ll show them around,” Urig said, though she said it is best to call ahead at (440) 322-2808 to make sure a guide is available.
The school also has hosted events during the recent Catholic Schools Week, and an open house was held Jan. 27. A Family Fun Night is scheduled 6 to 9 p.m. Feb. 22, with a ’50s sock-hop theme.
Alumni have been posting testimonials to a St. Mary education on Facebook, in an eight-part series called “Our Alumni Say It Best.”
Urig said a “major misconception” people have is that you have to be Catholic to attend.
“We’re faith-based. You don’t have to be Catholic to come to a Catholic school,” she said. “We’ve had a couple parents come through and say, ‘You know, I went to a Catholic school, but I’m not Catholic. This is the right choice for our family.’”
Urig, who first taught kindergarten at the school as a 22-year-old teacher fresh out of Bowling Green State University in 1985 and, after a “sabbatical” to raise her own children, became principal three years ago, said “the sky’s the limit” for programs for children at St. Mary.
“We’re just like a little gem, hidden here in Elyria,” Urig said.