As Catholic schools decline across the country, with rapid school closures and a shrinking student body, the Diocese of Orange is defying the trend.

Nationwide, more than 1,000 Catholic schools have closed since 2006, a 14% decrease, and enrollment has dropped by more than 400,000, a 17% loss, according to data from the National Catholic Education Assn.

But at Christ Cathedral Academy, the diocese’s flagship K-8 school located on the Christ Cathedral campus in Garden Grove, the number of students keeps going up year after year.

Enrollment has grown by 18% since the school opened in 2014, and is expected to continue its increase this year, according to Ryan Lilyengren, the diocese’s director of communications.

One reason for this, explained Lilyengren, is that the diocese — which has nearly 19,000 students in 41 schools from preschool to high school — has to compete with other high-quality schools in Orange County, both private and public, by offering a combination of strong academics, athletics, music, art and technology.

“We have to be better than your comparable options,” he said, noting that 99% of the diocese’s graduates are admitted to a four-year college. “The story of Catholic schools, where all the kids in the parish just come over, you open the door and all the kids who go to Mass every Sunday are ready to enroll — it doesn’t work like that anymore.”

Catholic schools in the diocese were the first in Southern California to introduce a one-to-one technology program that offers each student an iPad or Chromebook.

At Christ Cathedral Academy, which has 351 students, kindergartners receive an iPad mini to use through third grade, and then receive a full-size iPad in fourth grade. These devices are used to access a digital library, and also to customize learning to fit the student’s level.

Several schools also have STEM labs equipped with design software and 3D printers.

At Christ Cathedral Academy, another draw is the fine arts and music program, which includes painting, drawing, orchestra, choir, and this spring will also include dance in the school’s new ballet studio.

Kwang Nguyen, music director for Christ Cathedral Academy, said the arts help to develop the whole child and expand their horizons.

“They’re able to discover what they’re good at,” he said. “Some kids will say, ‘Mr. Kwang, I can’t sing.’ I say, ‘Well, that’s my job.’ That’s the kind of vision we have — we try to discover their hidden talent.”

But for many families, what sets the diocese’s schools apart is the religious education, community building and values-driven environment, which at Christ Cathedral Academy means attending Mass together every Friday morning and a catechism class that allows students to learn the Bible and Catholic rituals through hands-on activities and materials.

“There are studies telling us that if you get a child into one of our schools, it tends to evangelize the whole family,” said Lilyengren. “If the kid is in school, then the family also goes to Mass and does activities with the parish. It’s the most potent force to draw in people’s relationship with the Church — and it’s always been like that.”

Full story at LA Times.