Losing their religion
Guam’s Catholic schools seeing a decline in enrollment
By Johanna Salinas
When Guam’s schools switched to distance learning at the start of the pandemic, some families with children enrolled in private schools did not want to pay for online education. A Dededo family took their children out of the Catholic school for this reason.
“It didn’t make sense for us. We felt the instruction wasn’t so good,” said Jimi Chargualaf, a resident of Dededo and father of two. “I feel like instruction at public schools, because of the greater requirements for the teachers, might be better. Maybe more Catholic school parents are finding out that paying that much money every month just isn’t worth it with the kind of education that’s comparable to public school. We were really going to keep both my kids at a public school.”
But when all schools reverted to face-to-face classes, Chargualaf decided to send his children back to a Catholic school.
“We don’t put them in the Catholic school for religious reasons,” Chargualaf said. “We put them there for convenience, honestly. The school is near my wife’s work. We both work and it's tough for us to send them to the school in our district.”
But there are other factors Chargualaf has considered in his decision. “We were close to sending my older one to Dededo Middle, but hearing about instances of violence really had a big part in our decision.”
But as a parent, Chargualaf acknowledged that other families have other reasons for pulling their children out of Catholic schools, such as the perceived imposition of certain principles.
“I hate how the church presses their community to support pro-life efforts,” Chargualaf said. “Maybe people aren’t as devoted to following the church as they used to. Before, they may have felt obligated to go to Catholic schools. I feel that obligation isn’t there anymore. Our people are expanding their beliefs.”
In June last year, the Archdiocese of Agana first reported the decline in Catholic school enrollment in a legal brief submitted to federal court in connection with the church’s bankruptcy case. The archdiocese reported it has lost more than $100,000 in monthly revenue from Catholic schools since 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic that left many families unable to pay tuition and the church without extra funds to cover the difference.
For some parents, the “church crisis” is also a deciding factor. Over the years, the church has been maligned due to sex abuse cases that have been making global headlines.
“I am not religious myself; neither is my husband. But we sent our children to a Catholic school where we thought they can learn good moral values,” said a mother in Barrigada, whose two sons used to study at the now-defunct San Vicente Catholic School. “All these stories about sex abuse involving priests are disturbing. It brings me anxiety. Our kids are now both enrolled in a public school. I guess religion is not for everybody.”
The enrollment decline in Guam’s Catholic schools is reflective of the national landscape. Earlier this year, the National Catholic Educational Association announced a 6.4 percent enrollment drop in Catholic schools between the 2019–2020 and 2020–2021 school years. The average school reported roughly a 6 percent enrollment loss, though notably Catholic schools were only 20 percent of respondents.
Compounding this situation on Guam was a court ruling which held that survivors of clergy sex abuse may claim payments through the assets of Catholic schools. The archdiocese runs 10 Catholic schools throughout the island.
In August, the archdiocese announced "with much sadness" the permanent closure of San Vicente Catholic School due to a severe drop in student enrollment. The archdiocese said there was no recourse but to close the 67-year-old Barrigada school because student enrollment has dropped by more than 50 percent. Enrollment at San Vicente plunged severely from 107 students last year to just 39 prior to school opening. The archdiocese said it is not able to support the school financially.
"The final decision now comes after several recent meetings with alumni. We express gratitude to members of the San Vicente alumni who came together and focused on seeing if they could find a solution in the 11th hour," the archdiocese said in a statement on Aug. 3. "However, absent an immediate large, upswing in student enrollment and infusion of funds, San Vicente must close its doors."
Former teachers said the lack of CHamoru class and even art class affected the school’s morale. A former San Vicente teacher believes that having a stronger administration would have helped them stay open. “I believe we should’ve had monthly meetings with teachers, faculty, parents and guardians on suggestions on how to improve the school,” said the teacher who requested to be identified only as “Bertha.”
“Suggestions such as after-school programs, school clubs, ways to improve the school lunch program and sports, parents and students voluntarily helping to clean up the school alongside teachers and faculty once a month, fundraiser ideas to help the school.”
“Some of my best memories at San Vicente were when my students and I did fun science and social studies classroom activities. When we had our Thanksgiving prayer ceremony last year, it was beautiful and unified us all as a school,” said Bertha, who eventually found an office job.
“It is very unfortunate that San Vicente closed down after so many years and after so many alumni classes but all the great memories will forever be in the hearts of all the students, teachers, faculty, parents and guardians of San Vicente.”
Tony Diaz, communications director at the archdiocese, said the church administration tried to rehome San Vicente teachers.
“Where possible, we have urged our Catholic schools to employ former San Vicente faculty members,” Diaz said.
He said Saint Anthony Catholic School, Saint Francis Catholic School and Dominican School have welcomed teachers from San Vicente. “They are good, talented and dedicated educators who in many instances have given of themselves faithfully to the Catholic school system for many years,” Diaz said. “They will contribute positively and effectively wherever they go.”
Diaz also encouraged parents of San Vicente students to send them to other Catholic schools.
“From the onset, Superintendent of Catholic Education Father Val Rodriguez worked closely with our other Catholic schools to encourage them to accept students from San Vicente,” he said. “We are a family, really, and wherever our family can help one another, we do so.”
Diaz said a good number of former San Vicente Catholic School students have enrolled at Bishop Baumgartner Memorial Catholic School in Sinajana, Saint Anthony Catholic School in Tamuning, Saint Francis Catholic School in Yona, as well as in Santa Barbara Catholic School in Dededo and Dominican Catholic School in Yigo. Others have enrolled in public schools.
The future of the San Vicente campus property is uncertain. The school facilities and the land where the school is located are owned by the archdiocese.
“At the moment, the archdiocese is focused on the many details connected to closing the school, such as ensuring that all former San Vicente students have their school transcripts transferred to their new schools, financial records are secured, updated and processed, school equipment and supplies are stored, transferred or, in the case of federal funded items, returned to the Guam Department of Education,” Diaz said.
He said other Catholic schools are doing what they can to maintain their enrollment by promoting their focus on traditions and values. “Our schools have provided wonderful, enriching, quality Catholic faith-based education to scores of children in Guam in safe, vibrant environments for many decades,” Diaz said. “It is an education system grounded in our Catholic faith and therefore nurtures a strong sense of peace, respect and compassion in the students and their families.”
Diaz said the archdiocese will continue to campaign for new students throughout the island. “Most of our schools are adept with media and technology and promote themselves fairly well through social media and their websites,” he said. “There is an effective, traditional method of erecting roadside signs and billboards which Mount Carmel School is particularly very proficient with as well.”
However, Diaz acknowledged that Catholic schools are facing tough competition with public schools and other Christian denominations.
“It’s important that our Catholic schools develop even stronger proficiency in promotion, public relations and marketing of themselves and what they offer to families and students,” he said. “There are amazing things occurring in our classrooms every day. We have amazing students, teachers, staff and administrators. The archdiocese too, needs to step up in the way we help promote the good news of our schools.”
Diaz understands the hard work and finances that go into running a school and is optimistic about the future of Guam’s Catholic schools.
For the most part, Catholic schools on Guam have historically been stable. Diaz noted that there were only three Catholic schools that have permanently shut down.
In 1971, the archdiocese shut down the old Cathedral Grade School which was housed in the same facility as the Academy of Our Lady of Guam. “Cathedral students merged with students at Saint Jude School in Sinajana and the school was transformed into the Bishop Baumgartner Middle School,” Diaz said.
In 2015, the archdiocese shut the doors of Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic High School after opening in 2008 due to very small enrollment numbers and insufficient financial resources. “Though the school was relatively new, the move was a cause of much anguish for the closely-bound community of Saint Thomas Aquinas,” Diaz said.
Maria Artero Preschool Nursery and Kindergarten also closed in 2020 amid the pandemic.
“There are so many good experiences, so many good accomplishments, memories and people connected to such a close-knit, beautiful school as San Vicente in the past 67 years.” (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)
Full disclosure: Johanna Salinas is a public-school teacher.