Considering Catholic School? Here’s What to Know

With a variety of K-12 school options for parents to sort through, choosing the right learning environment for your child can be difficult. If private school is a consideration, then Catholic school may have crossed your mind.

“One of the main reasons my parents have continued to put me in a Catholic school all my life is because they wanted two things: to help nourish my faith and grow my character through God,” says Janiel Balino, a senior at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, Kansas.

Catholic schools aim to provide students with a solid religious and academic foundation, experts say, and can be significantly less expensive than other private schools. But some parents may be hesitant due to misconceptions about curriculum and who is eligible to attend these schools.

Here’s what to know when it comes to K-12 Catholic schools:

What Are Catholic Schools?

Catholic schools are faith-based private schools affiliated with the Catholic Church.

“Catholic schools are anchored in traditions and high expectations. They are committed to educating and developing the whole student, spiritually, intellectually, socially and physically,” says Diane Pyle, director of admissions and financial assistance at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School.

[READ: Private School vs. Public School.]

Pyle says Catholic schools emphasize putting values and principles into action through words and deeds, inside and outside of the classroom.

“Besides preparing a rigorous and academically challenging curriculum, Catholic schools’ fundamental purpose is to nourish and enrich students’ development as Christians, servants, performers, athletes and human beings,” says Pyle.

Catholic school enrollment dropped steadily over the last 20 years. However, enrollment numbers rose during the pandemic. In the 2022-2023 school year, Catholic school enrollment grew 0.3% from the previous year, to about 1.69 million students in nearly 6,000 schools nationwide, continuing a two-year upward trend in enrollments, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Can Anyone Attend Catholic School?

While many parents assume you have to be Catholic to attend Catholic school, that is not the case.

“Anyone may apply and many non-Catholic students are admitted to our schools,” says Sister Dale McDonald, vice president of public policy at the NCEA.

In fact, about 1 in 5 students enrolled in Catholic schools come from other faiths, she says.

“Non-Catholics are admitted with the understanding that they are seeking admission to a Catholic institution and are expected not to actively oppose its values,” says McDonald. “Most schools require non-Catholic students to take religion classes as an academic subject, but do not require or request acceptance of the faith.”

McDonald says typically each school sets its own admissions criteria “and that may be developed in collaboration with the diocesan education office that may have some broad parameters for all the schools, perhaps a diocesan-wide entrance exam.”

She says families apply directly to the school and preference may be given to families that have another student already enrolled.

What Is the Curriculum Like?

While most Catholic schools incorporate religious teachings, the specifics of the curriculum often vary by school, experts say.

“There may be some requirements from the Catholic schools’ office of the diocese that has developed academic standards and curriculum guidance,” says McDonald. But “the local school principal has a great deal of autonomy in most matters dealing with curriculum.”

Pyle says in addition to the core classes required by the state of Kansas, students at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School take theology classes every semester, at least three years of a modern foreign language, one semester of either speech, honors debate, or honors forensics, and a full credit of technology. That leaves students with three and a half credits of electives.

That’s a contrast from most public schools in the area, Pyle says, where “students can get six to nine elective credits and foreign language, theology classes and speech are not required.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas also requires their students to complete 100 hours of community service over the course of four years.

“Doing service projects drives home the importance of following Christ’s command to love thy neighbor,” says Pyle. “Students grow in the understanding that we are here for others and that life isn’t about us.”

Catholic School vs. Other Private Schools

Not all private schools are faith-based.

“Faith-based schools have some relationship with a church or religious organization that sponsors them,” says McDonald. “They may vary in governance structure. A parish may run a school, a diocese may do so and many are run by orders of religious congregations of sisters, priests or brothers.”

The requirement to wear a uniform is also a common feature of Catholic schools.

“Wearing a uniform makes the students feel like they are putting on their suits to go to work,” says Pyle. “It is not a fashion show or a place to show off the newest fashion, but rather to come to school and focus on academics.”

How Much Does Catholic School Cost?

As with any private school, families must pay yearly tuition to enroll their children in Catholic school. However, tuition at Catholic elementary and secondary schools is generally lower than at other religious or independent private schools, according to the Education Data Initiative.

As of 2023, average annual tuition for private Catholic elementary schools nationwide was $4,840, compared to $11,207 for all private elementary schools, according to the site. Average tuition for secondary Catholic schools was $11,240, compared to $16,645 for all private secondary schools.

[READ: How to Get Private School Financial Aid.]

Discounts may be available for members of a particular parish or diocese. For example, Pyle says tuition at Saint Thomas Aquinas is $12,200 for members of a Johnson County Catholic parish and $13,200 for non-members.

For -students from low-income families there are many tuition-assistance programs provided by local Catholic schools and the Archdiocese that are offered based on financial need. For example, the Catholic Education Foundation provided more than $13 million in tuition assistance to more than 10,000 students attending Archdiocesan schools in the counties of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura during the 2020-2021 academic school year.

Catholic school tuition is not tax-deductible.

Is Catholic School Worth It?

Parents should do their research and make the decision that’s best for their family, experts say.

While every school is different, Catholic schools in general have a high graduation and college placement. In the 2018-2019 school year, Catholic high schools had a graduation rate of 98% and a four-year college attendance rate of 85.2%, per the National Center for Education Statistics. The national graduation rate for public high school was 86%.

Balino, the 12th grader, says she feels blessed to attend a school “where faith is our No. 1 priority and to grow my faith even more through the devotion of the teachers, faculty and students.”

More from U.S. News

Applying to Private Schools: A Guide for K-12 Families

Magnet Schools vs. Charter Schools: Differences Explained

Can Your Child Go to School Outside Their District?

Considering Catholic School? Here’s What to Know originally appeared on usnews.com

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