As other Catholic schools close, Ascension enrollment climbs

? More than half the growth of enrollment at Ascension can be attributed to closings of other area Catholic Schools.

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Despite a trend of decreasing enrollment at many Chicago-area Catholic schools, enrollment at Ascension School in Oak Park has been steadily increasing for the past eight years. Now, in part due to the closure of several neighboring parochial schools, Ascension will have more than 500 students for the 2005-2006 school year.

In fact, according to the May edition of the Ascension school newsletter, more than half of the growth can be attributed to the closure of other area schools.

Enrollment increased "rather dramatically," according to principal Mary Jo Burns, from 483 students to 535 students. This increase is part of a seven- to eight-year pattern of growth, Burns said, which is now more pronounced because of the closure of St. Mary of Celle in Berwyn. "We are very sad, of course, that these schools are closing, but we're very glad that we are able to accommodate so many of the families that have chosen to transfer to Ascension," Burns said in the newsletter.

Despite changes at Ascension, however, enrollment has not changed significantly at other area Catholic schools, including St. Giles in Oak Park, St. Catherine of Siena/St. Lucy in Oak Park and St. Luke in River Forest, according to officials at those schools.

To adapt to the increase, Ascension is expanding some previously part-time positions and adding teachers' aides. The part-time teacher's aide in first grade will now work full-time, and a full-time teachers' aide will be hired for second grade. In addition, Ascension's two assistant principals, who originally held part-time positions, will now have more administrative responsibilities and, consequently, be full-time. Burns said that the school's hiring has been conservative as school officials wait to see if this trend continues.

Other preparations have also already begun. "It may not be the most important item on the list, but we have to get our classrooms ready," Assistant Principal Kathy Kambach said in the newsletter. "We're counting desks, chairs, lockers and books to see what we need to order. We're planning events to help new students get acquainted now so that their summer is not filled with anxiety."

The first event Ascension hosted for the new students was an orientation/ice cream social on June 2, and families of new students have been added to the Ascension mailing list. "One of our goals is to welcome families, let them know what's going on, and create a situation where they will feel successful at our school," Burns said in a telephone interview.

Although specific reasons for the enrollment increase, besides the closure of St. Mary of Celle, are hard to pinpoint, Ascension officials point to demographics and Ascension's reputation.

"There are a lot of families buying homes in this area. And we're not completely sure why, but...we've seen south Oak Park having somewhat of a renaissance. We have a pretty significant alumni population here, [and] Ascension [School] has an excellent program. People are very attracted to Ascension Parish."

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