ST. PETERSBURG — With continued high unemployment in an uncertain economy, the Diocese of St. Petersburg says it will offer over $1 million in tuition assistance to help families send their children to Catholic schools in the new academic year.
The sum is $300,000 more than was available this year.
An estimated 30 percent of students in the five-county diocese currently qualify for tuition assistance, according to diocese officials.
The number of students who need financial assistance is increasing, said Catholic schools superintendent Alberto Vázquez-Matos. "I can say that by the applications that are coming in.
"The bishop and I share a vision and that's to provide quality Catholic education in every part of the diocese and because the economic climate has changed, many families have been affected.''
In many cases, they're coping with higher tuition. Frank Murphy, spokesman for the diocese, which encompasses Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, said tuition has had to be raised an average of 3 percent this year for salaries and other expenses.
The tuition assistance program covers about 10 percent of tuition, he said.
He said enrollment around the diocese has stabilized.
"Last year, families didn't even know if they had a job and were really worried about enrolling their children. It's not gotten better yet, but they understand their position. They feel a little more secure in their jobs and in their finances,'' Murphy said.
While the diocese was forced to close one school in 2003, merge two and close one in 2007, there is currently no talk of closing or consolidating schools, Murphy said.
"At this stage, we don't have anything planned. I think we're always looking and it is one of the things that we continue to look at, but as of now, I don't think there is anything that we plan to close,'' he said.
Even St. Peter Claver, a historically black parochial school in Tampa that has faced the prospect of closing over the years, no longer is reporting shrinking enrollment, Murphy said. "The enrollment seems to have stabilized and is somewhat improved,'' he said.
Vázquez-Matos, who was hired in July, said he is working with schools to help them develop a strategic plan to recruit and retain students.
Asked about the Cathedral School of St. Jude in St. Petersburg, which was recently roiled in controversy over the way a priest handled confessions, the superintendent said enrollment there is stable.
At Sacred Heart Interparochial School, created from a merger four years ago of the former Transfiguration Catholic School in St. Petersburg and Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park, the student body has declined since the consolidation, principal Andy Shannon said.
Like most schools in the diocese, Sacred Heart, with its 141 students, is below capacity.
"We would love to have 200,'' Shannon said.
"We have a wonderful school, very safe and nurturing, but the challenge has been the enrollment. Financial resources are always at a premium.''
He said the tuition assistance program is important to Sacred Heart families.
"With the million dollars, depending on how many students in the five-county area apply, I would hope that what they award would be more than in years past,'' he said.
Students at some schools need more financial help than others, Murphy acknowledged.
"We have some schools that the families are struggling more than in other areas. The schools that are smaller are struggling the most. Nativity (Brandon) and St. Stephen's (Riverview) are larger schools. They are a little more stable, but even for them, they have to be careful, too,'' he said.
Money for the tuition assistance program comes from the diocese's annual pastoral appeal, donations to the Catholic Foundation, a private group founded in 1997, and individual gifts.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.