Florida Catholic schools thrive amid record choice expansion

Editor’s note: This story is published in celebration of National Catholic Schools Week, which runs from Jan. 28-Feb. 3.

Visit Guardian Angels Catholic School in Clearwater, and you’ll feel a deep sense of community as soon as you pull up to the entrance. School leaders stand at the curb, waving at parents and greeting each student as they leave their cars. The day starts with a student-run television news show, including announcements about frequent evening social events. Principal Mary Stalzer strolls through each room to ensure everything is running smoothly. 

By mid-morning, the youngest students are running around on the playground. Middle schoolers work in science labs. In another room, students read stories they have written or edit a classmate’s work. Outside, students tend vegetable gardens that are part of the school’s fully certified STREAM program. (STREAM stands for Science, Religion, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math and is the Catholic school version of a STEAM program.) Teachers link the gardening projects to Jesus’ parable about what can be achieved by having faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. 

Where Catholic schools are often tied to a single church, with which they often share a location, Guardian Angels is an inter-parish school, which means it has no specific church. Instead, support is spread across four local parishes. This may help explain why the school’s leaders have made building community a priority. 

The tree-shrouded campus sits tucked away in a neighborhood of modest homes and apartment complexes, not visible from major highways. 

“We are the hidden gem of northern Pinellas County,” said Stalzer, whose career with Catholic schools has spanned a quarter century.

Guardian Angels Catholic School in Clearwater, Florida is known for its deep sense of community, which is fostered by the encouragement of parents and grandparents to be involved in school activities. Photo courtesy of Guardian Angels Catholic School

 

Guardian Angels Catholic School

Over the years, she has taught elementary school, worked in the library, and served as assistant principal before becoming head of the school. “We are warm and welcoming. We know our students; we know their parents and their grandparents.”  

This year, more people have discovered the sparkle of Guardian Angels, where enrollment spiked this school year by 19% after several years of decline due to the pandemic and other nearby schools.  

Stalzer attributed the substantial increase to several factors, including a grassroots marketing campaign that included in-person and online meetings, letters, social media posts, and word-of-mouth. However, the primary reason she cited and other school leaders gave for their growth was the Florida Legislature’s passage of House Bill 1, the largest expansion of school choice in United States history.  

While this year’s growth at Guardian Angels is sure to turn heads, it’s part of a much broader statewide trend. Recent data from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops show Catholic school enrollment grew by 4% across the Sunshine State in the 2023-24 school year. That increase is on top of the 4% growth seen over the past decade highlighted in a special report by Step Up For Students. 

Chart courtesy of Ron Matus

Stalzer and the other Catholic school leaders across the state made every effort to make existing and new families aware of the new law, which extended scholarship eligibility to all Florida students regardless of their family’s income. 

“People found it hard to believe that they didn’t have to qualify for it financially,” Stalzer said. “I have heard some families say it’s an answer to their prayers.”  

Chris Pastura, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, where Guardian Angels is located, said the law helped many families who otherwise would not have been able to afford Catholic schools. The 34 elementary and secondary schools in the diocese, which cover five counties in the greater Tampa Bay area, reported a year-over-year growth rate of 3.8% 

“What I found was an immense sense of gratitude from a lot of middle-class families,” Pastura said. Those families might be getting by, he said, but make financial sacrifices to provide their kids with a Catholic education.  

“This is a great example of a program helping them at the bottom line,” he said. 

With its current enrollment at 191, Guardian Angels still has plenty of room before it reaches what Stalzer called a “comfortable” count of 350 students. Other schools across the state are hitting their maximum capacity, which they attribute to Florida’s rising population and the availability of state school choice scholarships. This year, 78% percent of Florida Catholic school students received them. 

“Catholic school enrollment continues to soar in the state of Florida, said Deacon Scott Conway, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of St. Augustine, which reported 4% year over year growth across its 29 schools in 17 northeast Florida counties.  

“One of our biggest struggles is not having enough seats for students, which causes us to have to turn many students and families away,” he said. “We are so blessed here in Florida that our legislature has recognized the importance of empowering school choice for families. For most people, there is no choice without the scholarship program. 

One of those schools is Holy Family Catholic in Jacksonville, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school recently ramped up its Wildcat D.E.N.S. program to provide personalized tutoring for students struggling in key academic areas and enrichment for students identified as gifted. 

This year, for the first time, the school had to start a waitlist for students in kindergarten through fourth grade, assistant principal Amanda Robison said. 

Florida’s largest Catholic school region also reported growth of about 4% this year, continuing a trend that began four years ago.  

“Enrollment is the largest it has been in over 10 years,” said Jim Rigg, who oversees 64 schools as superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Miami, which includes Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties. “Over 50 percent of our schools are filled with waiting lists, and nearly all of the remaining schools are growing. 

Rigg cited the August re-opening of St. Malachy Elementary School in Tamarac, which had closed 14 years earlier due to declining enrollment, along with the addition of a high school to an elementary school in Key West as evidence of rising demand. Cristo Rey Miami High School also opened in 2022, the second Florida location for a national network of high schools that specialize in college preparatory academics and on-the-job work experience for students from financially constrained households. 

“Unfortunately, there are now areas of the Archdiocese where we simply do not have open seats in our schools,” he said. 

Rigg added that Archdiocese leaders are in “active conversations” about future openings and reopenings to accommodate the demand, which he attributed to Florida’s robust scholarship programs as well as an influx of families from the northern U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean. 

“It is important that we do our best to meet the strong and growing demand for Catholic education in South Florida,” he said. 


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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.

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