Once among the ranks of ailing urban Catholic schools across the nation, St. Therese Catholic Academy in Seattle started this school year in much better shape, the result of big changes that have helped bolster its enrollment. Supporters hope the school will become a model to help other Catholic schools survive.

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Up until two years ago, St. Therese Catholic Academy, an 85-year-old school in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, found itself on the same discouraging path that has led thousands of Catholic schools across the nation to close.

Enrollment in the handsome brick building dwindled to a mere 91 students, or about 10 per grade level. Expenses kept going up. If nothing changed, closure was a strong possibility.

The school’s leaders didn’t waste time tinkering, instead making a series of big changes that helped enrollment reach 173 students when school opened on Aug. 27, nearly double the number in fall 2010.

Part of the turnaround grew from the simple hard work of putting up fliers and making calls, as well as adding a new prekindergarten program last fall. But St. Therese also is attracting families with a new emphasis on computer instruction.

All students in the K-8 school will soon be spending 30 to 50 percent of each school day on laptops, clicking their way through software that covers all of their subjects except religion, and lets their teachers track how they’re doing.

With $433,000 in grants to date, including $300,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, St. Therese is the second Catholic school in the nation to adopt a blended-learning model, which combines computer-based learning with traditional classroom instruction.

The program is patterned after ones used in a handful of well-known charter schools — programs that have drawn criticism from those who think blended learning is just the latest unproven education fad, but have generated strong interest from schools like St. Therese, which are impressed with the results some of the charters are getting.

“Endangered species”

To survive, “we knew we had to do something drastic and different,” said Principal Theresa Hagemann.

The hope is that the changes at St. Therese, which also include an increased focus on college preparation, will attract enough families to put the school back on strong financial footing and, at the same time, provide a model that other ailing Catholic schools can follow.

A similar effort is under way at Holy Rosary in Tacoma, where school leaders introduced a new language-immersion program in Spanish and English in the hope of drawing more Catholic Latino families to that school.

Both schools are part of a national effort to stop the steady stream of Catholic school closures — especially among those that, like Holy Rosary and St. Therese, serve a majority of poor children.

Across the country, more than 2,000 Catholic schools have shut their doors over the past 12 years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Catholic schools in the Puget Sound area have fared better. In Philadelphia earlier this year, for example, the archdiocese announced plans to close 49 schools. In Western Washington, the archdiocese here hasn’t closed a single one over the past 15 years and in fact has opened several, a track record many attribute to former Archbishop Alex Brunett’s commitment to Catholic education.

The Seattle Archdiocese says the overall enrollment of its schools has held steady, even while the number of private-school students in the state has declined in all but one of the past five years. That’s not to say some Catholic schools haven’t run into financial troubles.

“The inner-city Catholic school in this country is an endangered species and locally, I would say they are vulnerable,” said Joe Womac of the Fulcrum Foundation, an organization Brunett founded to support Catholic schools, primarily by raising scholarship money. Rural Catholic schools also have been hard hit, Womac said.

When Timothy Uhl was hired as interim principal at Tacoma’s Holy Rosary a few years ago, he was told he would likely have to close the school.

St. Therese didn’t reach that point, said Hagemann, but easily could have if it kept losing students. Each year, more and more of its families request financial assistance, with about 63 percent qualifying last year for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.

Part of the problem is the poor economy, and at St. Therese, discord over the removal of a former principal only intensified the falling enrollment.

Changing times

Scott Hamilton, who runs Seton Education Partners, a 3-year-old organization dedicated to helping Catholic schools thrive, said the bigger problem is that the former economic model of Catholic schools, which relied on low-paid nuns and large class sizes, is no longer possible. In 1960, nuns made up about 96 percent of the teaching force at Catholic schools, he said. Now they make up only about 3 percent.

Seton Education Partners selected St. Therese from dozens of applicants as the second Catholic school in its Phaedrus Initiative, which aims to create a string of technology-focused Catholic schools. Before he co-founded Seton, Hamilton helped start the Knowledge is Power Program, one of the nation’s best-known networks of charter schools.

The Gates Foundation supported St. Therese with a one-time grant because it wants public schools in the Seattle area to consider the blended school model, said Edie Harding, a senior program officer.

Hagemann says the blended-learning approach will save money because some students will always be working on their laptops, meaning the school can raise class sizes without hiring more certificated teachers. Teachers, she said, still will be able to work with students in groups of 10 or 15 at a time.

To those who worry that the new program might be so successful that richer students start to crowd out the school’s core constituency of low-income ones, Hagemann said that won’t happen. The school, she said, has pledged to reserve at least half its seats for students from low-income families.

With the $433,000 in startup funds from the Gates Foundation and other sources, St. Therese now has 190 laptop computers, enough for every student in grades 4-8, and one for every two students in kindergarten and grades 1-3.

Those laptops replaced a computer lab where, on a good day, only half of the 25 computers worked. Such changes “feel good to this community,” said Hagemann, in her second year as principal.

St. Therese students, she said, used to look with envy at the equipment and textbooks they saw at other Catholic schools. Now, she said, “they get to feel like they’re the ones who can pass along their hand-me-downs someday.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com