Five-year-old Henry Schroeder got into kindergarten. Hooray!
This might not seem like big news. Kindergarten isn’t Harvard. Even Harvard admittance itself isn’t newsworthy. (Unless a kindergartner somehow got into Harvard ...)
But little Henry’s recent move from waitlist to classroom roster at St. Columbkille Catholic School in Papillion was a stop-the-presses moment for his parents.
The elementary school has had to put prospective kindergartners on a waitlist for the past five years because demand has been so high. And it isn’t the only Omaha-area Catholic school to do that. This has put Omaha on the map nationally, earning the 23-county archdiocesan school system the distinction of having one of the highest enrollment growth rates at a time when the story nationally for Catholic grade schools is an enrollment slide.
“We are still a growing system,” said Superintendent Michael Ashton. “It will be the fifth year of being one of the rare — I’ll say this — rare growing Catholic schools systems.”
Ashton said he expects the Omaha Catholic school system enrollment to top 20,000 this fall, thanks to some efforts in recent years that seem to have turned things around, including a reorganization of some lower-enrollment schools, Latino family outreach, tuition grants and a more intentional marketing campaign.
Enrollment at St. Columbkille, which is landlocked at 224 E. Fifth St., is 515. Capacity is 540. The extra space is in the higher grades and not where demand is — at kindergarten, first and second, which have waitlists. The school has had to establish a system that prioritizes siblings of students already enrolled and children in the preschool. Then the school measures time in the parish. New families without those connections go to the end of the line.
This is where the Schroeders found themselves when they tried to get Henry, the oldest of their three children, in for kindergarten.
Cassandra, a middle school teacher, and husband William, a technology coordinator, knew the score. They rolled the dice and registered Henry since both of them had attended Catholic schools, had once worked at Catholic schools, had built a house in Papillion and were members of the parish.
When Henry didn’t get in right away, the Schroeders went to Plan B: They enrolled Henry at their neighborhood public elementary, Prairie Queen, one of the Papillion-La Vista school district’s fastest-growing schools. They signed Henry up for Prairie Queen’s after-school program and paid initial fees. They visited the school and told Henry that’s where he’d be going.
Then, after the Fourth of July, St. Columbkille contacted the family with good news. Henry got in.
St. Columbkille Principal Brandi Redburn attributed the high interest in the school to a few factors. One is growth. That’s evident in the extra 200 to 300 children who get added to the local public school rosters each year. The second is marketing. Redburn thinks the school has done a better job of telling its story, persuading more parents to pay the $1,900-per-child annual tuition and put in volunteer time. And the school, responding to parent needs, added an after-school program.
Then there’s location. Bellevue has three Catholic grade schools, but St. Columbkille is the only Catholic grade school in western Sarpy County. (The archdiocese last year purchased land for a church and possible grade school at 114th Street and Nebraska Highway 370, and also is considering a school for Gretna.)
The Hollinger family treks 10 miles in from Springfield. Maeve, the youngest, will be in kindergarten with Henry. Her spot was more secure because of three older siblings who are entering grades three, five and seven. Mom Kim said the warm, welcoming parish community is a big draw.
“We always say it takes a village to raise your children and (St. Columbkille) is a pretty awesome village,” she said.
That village was on display Monday in the parish hall, where families lined up for a hot dog and hamburger buffet at a back-to-school picnic.
Munching on a hamburger was Emily Christensen, who will be in kindergarten with Henry Schroeder and Maeve Hollinger.
“We got in,” said Emily’s mom, Carissa Christensen. “I don’t know how. But we did. They did tell us there were 20 people on the waiting list.”
It’s not uncommon for Catholic schools to cut off enrollment when classrooms hit capacity. Capacities vary across the archdiocese based on school building size and enrollment demand.
Take St. Stephen the Martyr. The southwest Omaha school at 168th and Q Streets has one of the highest grade school enrollments at 720 — but there are openings across all grades because the school has three sections of each grade and those sections haven’t hit maximum.
“If we went down to two classrooms (per grade) we would be capped out,” said Principal Julie Perrault.
Still, even with three sections per grade, St. Patrick’s at 204th and West Maple has 825 enrolled and a waitlist for preschool, pre-K and kindergarten.
St. Vincent De Paul, near 144th and West Maple, has 873 students signed up. Principal Barb Marchese pointed to booming Bennington to the north and said her phone is still ringing.
“I’m giving two tours today! It’s August!” she said about late interest from prospective students.
Bellevue’s St. Bernadette, 7600 S. 42nd St., which has one section for each grade and 282 students signed up, has openings in upper grades, but kindergarten, first, second and third grades are closed. Principal Lynn Schultz said, “Families are coming. We’re out of room.”
That’s the case at St. Columbkille in the lower grades. One reason Henry got waitlisted for a while is that the school has three sections of kindergarten, aiming for a lower classroom size of 20. By first, second and the rest, as many as 30 students can be in a classroom, capping grade capacity at 60.
This is not exactly news to prospective St. Columbkille families in Papillion.
“I have people who call,” Redburn said, “when their child is, like, 8 months old.”