Maria Elvira Giusti de Gutierrez of Calexico said she believes it is important and necessary to send all three of her children to Catholic school for the academic excellence and morals they receive.
Tuition for that excellence and those morals come at a hefty price, but it is a financial sacrifice the Gutierrez family deems necessary for their children.
“My husband stayed with his car for 15 years, and when one of my daughters graduated from (Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy) my husband told her he would buy her a car, but he wouldn’t be able to afford (to send her to) Vincent (Memorial High),” said Gutierrez in Spanish.
“My daughter, Ana, made the choice to attend Vincent instead of getting a car,” she said. Gutierrez has children at OLGA and Vincent.
Many families such as the Gutierrez family have had to make substantial sacrifices to enroll their children in Catholic schools.
While Catholic schools have seen declining enrollment and closures across the nation, Imperial Valley’s Catholic schools are doing well and in many cases thriving and healthier than ever, said Tom Beecher, director of schools for the San Diego Diocese. Imperial County is part of the San Diego Diocese.
According to the most recent U.S. Department of Education, 2005-2009 “Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States” report, Catholic schools saw a 236,600 decline in enrollment rates.
Recently, three elementary Catholic schools in Logan Heights, Ocean Beach and Lakeside have all closed their doors indefinitely.
While those closures were the subject of recent reports in the San Diego area due to enrollment concerns, the same issues do not appear to be occurring in Imperial County.
“The Catholic schools in the Imperial Valley have been pretty steady in regards to enrollment rates for the past 10 years,” Beecher said. “They are not in danger of closing.”
Beecher went on to say demographics play a large part as to why Catholic schools close within the diocese.
The population in San Diego is 3,177,063, according to a 2012 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to an estimated 176,946 residents for Imperial County, and the median household income in San Diego is $63,857, according to a 2007-2011 Census report, compared to $39,402 in the Valley.
Yet none of that takes into account our neighboring border town of Mexicali.
Forty-percent of St. Mary’s Catholic School student population is from Mexicali, said Sister Katia Chavez, principal of the El Centro elementary school.
Chavez attributes a growing middle class in both Mexicali and Imperial Valley to the growing student population at her school.
Principals with St. Mary’s and Scared Heart acknowledge that without Mexicali, Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy and Vincent Memorial might not exist, as Mexicali accounts for the majority of their student populations.
Statistics were not available from either school, with OLGA officials cancelling a scheduled interview for this story.
Chavez said she believes parents don’t have as many options for parochial education as they would in San Diego. “They only have St. Mary’s, OLGA and Sacred Heart to choose from; that is it,” Chavez said.
The San Diego Diocese has 44 elementary schools, with only three of those in the Imperial Valley.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy in Calexico typically has 600 or more students, Beecher said.
St. Mary’s in El Centro fluctuates from 250 to 260 students a year.
Sacred Heart is the smallest school in the diocese with 100 to 104 students, Beecher said.
“The community of Brawley has a substantial role in helping Sacred Heart survive,” Beecher said.
Being creative and financially savvy makes a difference
Student population at Sacred Heart was down 20 percent at one point, said Brian Barrett, principal of Sacred Heart.
“Everyone was having a rough time keeping enrollment rates up when the economy dropped in 2008,” said Barrett.
Nevertheless, Sacred Heart grew by 10 percent over the 2012-2013 academic year, said Barrett.
About 40 percent of Sacred Heart’s student population travels from as far as Seeley, Niland, Calipatria and even Calexico, said Barrett.
A few families from Mexicali enrolled their children in Sacred Heart before the economic downturn of 2008, he said.
Barrett said his school offers multiple children discounts. The discount helps his school keep their numbers steady.
“We make that concession at Sacred Heart because we have our socioeconomic demographic here is middle to low economic class,” he said.
Tough financial decisions need to be made to keep catholic schools open, Barrett said.
Sacred Heart cut their seventh and eighth grade program last year due to low enrollment; with only three to four students in the program.
“It was a tough decision, but financially it was the right decision.”
Sacred Heart instead allocated those funds toward an additional preschool class.
Catholic schools that are opening preschools and focusing on them are becoming financially stable, Barrett said.
“A parent may not be able to justify paying $435 to send a sixth grader to school, but for a preschooler, now that is something they can justify,” he said.
Parents that are able to justify the high tuition cost play a tremendous role in keeping both Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s doors open.
“I believe and am convinced that it is because of the effort that the parents have made,” St. Mary’s Principal Chavez said. “We have a lot of fundraising events, activities and they are constantly helping. They make our fundraising efforts successful; we always exceed our goals.”
Imperial Valley Catholic schools are doing well because of the small community in search of a quality Catholic education with moral values for children, Chavez said.
Parents endure hardships for child’s academic excellence
Martha Oceguera of Calexico said she sends her two girls to Sacred Heart for both the religious and family values they are taught.
She tried putting her girls in OLGA, but the waiting list was long, said Oceguera.
The Oceguera family wakes up every morning at 6 o’clock to send their girls to school on time.
“It’s a 30-minute drive, but I do it for my girls and their education,” she said.
The Oceguera family is fortunate and doesn’t have difficulties paying for the tuition.
“Fortunately both my husband and I work, and daycare would be more expensive than what we are paying now,” she said.
Adrianna Meza of Brawley sends her son to preschool at Sacred Heart and her daughter to first grade.
“Financially it is difficult, but we like what we have seen as an outcome so we make the sacrifice,” Meza said.
Meza’s husband is a musician, so the money he makes from his music helps pay the children’s tuition, she said.
Both Barrett and Chavez said there is no chance of their schools closing in the near future.
Staff Writer Alexis Rangel can be reached at 760-337-3440 or email@example.com