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Arkansas Catholic schools see most students in 5 years

LEARNS Act and post-COVID part of enrollment surge

Published: November 2, 2023   
Erica Erck Photography
Students at St. Joseph School in Fayetteville use their chromebooks to work on class projects in September.

With the tapering off of the COVID-19 pandemic and the passage of the LEARNS Act, Catholic schools in Arkansas are seeing the highest student enrollment in five years.

According to the Diocese of Little Rock’s Catholic Schools Offices, 6,599 students in pre-K to 12th grade are enrolled for the 2023-2024 school year.

Reports from the Catholic Schools Office indicate that enrollment fell significantly during the pandemic but steadily began increasing as the pandemic subsided, surpassing pre-pandemic numbers. 

Marguerite Olberts, associate superintendent for Catholic schools, said the COVID-19 pandemic had a silver lining. 

“We lost some enrollment initially,” Olberts said. “Parents were keeping kids at home. But as we know, our schools got back that fall (2020), and our kids showed less learning loss than their public school counterparts. For the most part, our scores stayed pretty strong.”

Olberts said while some grades needed more catching up than others, Catholic school students were prepared to start the 2023-2024 school year on the right foot. Olberts believes several factors were at play in high Catholic school enrollment this year.

“Some parents wanted a safer environment, and for some of our schools, that also means a smaller learning environment, although not for all of them,” Olberts said. “Our testing, our curriculum, our teachers responded so well. … Our kids did not show that learning loss. They just kept going and growing.”


Growth in different grades and areas

Some areas saw more growth than others. An enrollment spreadsheet compiled by the Catholic Schools Office based on information provided by Catholic schools to the National Catholic Education Association shows that prior to the 2022-2023 school year, all pre-kindergarten classes were combined into the PreK-4 category. However, as of the 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 school years, some schools indicated they now have Pre-K2 and Pre-K3 programs, providing a more accurate view of student enrollment, while also indicating an increase in enrollment. 

Theresa Hall, superintendent of Catholic schools, said during the pandemic, Catholic schools saw a large drop in pre-kindergarten students. 

“Part of that was because more parents were working from home,” Hall said. “They didn’t want to pay tuition if they weren’t going to be able to use it because their children were in quarantine. …The following year, our numbers there were back up to what they would have normally been.”

Hall said enrollment is at the highest it’s been for some time.

“This year alone, we had a 2.29 percent increase (in student enrollment),” Hall said. “Last year was a 2.88 percent increase.”

Enrollment has seen increases from last year in students going into kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fourth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, ninth grade, 11th grade and 12th grade across the state. 

Hall said this growth was prevalent in central Arkansas, as families prepared to send formerly public school children to parochial secondary schools, and in the northwest corner of the state, where economic opportunity and growth have drawn more families to the area. 

“I’m not saying all students that we get from public schools are behind, but I would say 60 percent of those students are usually not on our grade level,” Hall said. “So there’s a little bit of a struggle for them to make it up, and it’s better to do it at a younger age.”

Principal Deacon Jason Pohlmeier said St. Joseph School in Fayetteville has had a steady increase in enrollment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2019-2020 school year, the school’s enrollment was 321, and today it is 407. 

Pohlmeier said Catholic school performance over public school counterparts played a big part in the boost.

“The first big jump in 2020-21 was directly related to the COVID shutdowns,” he said. “Many people were not pleased with the return-to-school plans of our local public school district. Many parents felt that our plan would be more conducive to their children's continued educational growth… Now, more and more, when I give tours parents express that they are coming to Catholic schools because they trust the moral and social formation we can give, and that they feel it is lacking elsewhere. When you add these factors to the regular, natural growth, it has created something special.”


The LEARNS Act and Catholic schools

Olberts said more than 1,200 students in Catholic schools are participating in the financial educational freedom accounts (EFAs), a form of education savings accounts (ESAs) established by the LEARNS Act to students from F-rated schools and students with disabilities, among other qualifications.  

The Arkansas Policy Foundation, a nonprofit research institute that has tracked educational reform policy since 1995, published a report in October called “Catholic Student Enrollment in LEARNS Act ESAs.” The Arkansas Policy Foundation estimated that Arkansas Catholic student enrollment in the EFAs accounted for 28 percent of the statewide participation in the program. The total amount given to schools per student for EFAs is $6,672 per year, which is evenly distributed each quarter after parents upload their invoice from their school. 

Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva estimated that 4,795 students statewide participated in the EFA launch between June 19 and Sept. 20, with 1,346 of the EFA students enrolled in the state’s 26 Catholic schools. 

Of those schools, Christ the King in Little Rock had the greatest number of students at 172, followed by Immaculate Conception in North Little Rock at 119 and St. Joseph in Fayetteville at 117. 

“We have a large number (of students receiving EFAs) because we already had many families benefiting from Succeed Scholarships, which were rolled into the LEARNS Act,” Pohlmeier said.

Olberts doesn’t believe the LEARNS Act had a significant impact on new student enrollment. 

“Most of the kids that have applied in our schools for EFAs were already registered or planning to register for kindergarten,” Olberts said. 

Olberts said most special needs students who qualified for EFAs were already enrolled in Catholic schools as well, and the deadline came up so quickly for EFA consideration that not everyone who would have been eligible was able to apply and enroll in time. 

“I would not say that we had that many that came into our schools (as a result of the LEARNS Act),” Hall said. 


CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated “For the 2023-2024 school year, $6,672 will be disbursed quarterly for each student to participating schools.” However, the total given to schools per student for EFAs is $6,672 per year, which is evenly distributed each quarter after parents upload their invoice from their school.

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