Student enrollment at Archdiocese of Omaha schools has increased for the first time in 17 years — a promising sign for church officials who have been working to reverse a steady decline.

Total enrollment in the 70-school system grew by 366 students, or about 2 percent. There are 19,277 students this year in prekindergarten through 12th grade, up from 18,911 last year.

Superintendent Patrick Slattery announced the gain at the annual Archbishop’s Dinner for Education on Thursday night.

“I want to share in the excitement of the message,” Slattery said in an interview with The World-Herald. “But the status quo will never cut it. We need to build on this now.”

Nationally, Catholic school enrollment has been decreasing since 1965, Slattery said. The Omaha Archdiocese has seen declines as well, although at times it has bucked the national trend.

For example, the 23-county archdiocese had enrollment gains from 1992 to 1998, which Slattery attributed to expansion in west Omaha, including the construction of Skutt High School. But from 2004 to 2014, the archdiocese lost an average of about 186 students per year, before this year’s gains.

Slattery said officials have not yet examined the exact reasons for the growth, but noted various efforts in recent years, including marketing and transfer grant initiatives, hiring of a Latino school enrollment coordinator and simple word of mouth from parents and teachers.

The three Omaha-area schools with the biggest enrollment gains are all east of 50th Street. Slattery said that is unique. Nationally, Catholic schools with increased enrollment tend to be in growing suburban areas, while inner-city schools have lost students.

But Sts. Peter and Paul in the heart of South Omaha at 36th and X Streets saw the archdiocese’s largest one-year gain, of 28 percent — 52 students. St. Thomas More at 48th Avenue and Grover Street and Holy Cross at 48th Street and Woolworth Avenue each grew by 46 students.

Cory Sepich, principal of Sts. Peter and Paul School, called his school’s growing enrollment a “blessing” and said it indicated that families were pleased with the school.

“The No. 1 recruiting tool is a happy family,” he said. We have “a large Latino population, and it’s a tight-knit community. They want cousins and best friends to go to the same school. Once we started to have some success, it took off from there.”

Sepich said one important factor was the archdiocese’s February hiring of Beatriz Arellanes as the Latino school enrollment coordinator.

Sts. Peter and Paul School, which had 72 percent Latino students last year, is 85 percent Latino this year, thanks to Arellanes’ efforts, Sepich said.

“The biggest thing that she’s done is be a welcoming personality to the Latino community in Omaha,” he said. “She’s helped steer (the families) and direct them and find the school that’s best for them.”

A $2 million advertising campaign dubbed Awaken Greatness was launched in December to attract families to Catholic schools. In addition, some local schools this year began to offer $1,500 transfer grants, given over two years, to new students who had attended non-Catholic schools. In the first three weeks of this school year, 41 students transferred to Catholic schools because of the grants.

“That tells me we need to expand on that,” Slattery said.

The 38 schools in the Omaha metro area added 284 students, and 25 of those schools saw enrollment go up. Outside of Omaha, Norfolk Catholic High School gained the most students — 37 — and total rural school growth was 82 students.

Officials say they now are aiming to hit two consecutive years of adding students.

“We want to keep that sustainable growth,” Sepich said. “Just going from good to great.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1068, alia.conley@owh.com

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