March 12, 2009 — -- Officials at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago were embarrassed last week as 300 students with unpaid tuition bills were turned away from class.
Hard economic times, coupled with a storm-related Internet shutdown, meant that a record number of parents were unable to pay in time for their children to start the spring quarter.
In the end, after all the bookkeeping was settled, only 40 out of 1,500 student accounts were delinquent.
But the anger and confusion that followed illustrates the pressure the recession has placed on parents trying to afford a Catholic education.
"I think we always strike a balance between having to be business and pay our own bills and faculty, and also being compassionate in a faith-based community," Marian principal Kathleen Tait said.
The school was "exasperated" by the mix-up, according to Tait. Normally, officials work with parents to create tuition plans and had made multiple contacts with these families through letters and phone calls.
But these are not normal times. With millions of Americans being laid off and higher parochial school tuitions -- Marian costs $8,050 a year -- many parents are too strapped to pay.
The school said it was owed about $450,000 in fees, but much of that has now been resolved.
"It's tough to hold the line," Tait said. "But we told them, we need you to pay. When we don't hear a response, we have to withhold students from class. In the best case, a child doesn't show up for a day."
But parents said that the school had been "unprofessional" and that locking kids out had been "embarrassing."
Even the school's staff was jolted by the awkward situation.
"I thought they could have been a little more sensitive," said Senior Diego Villasenor as he saw the lines swell outside his office and students sharing cell phones to call their parents.
"It was unusual because Marian is a very caring place," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I didn't see anybody crying, but I'm sure people were."
Marian Catholic High School has seen a big increase in parents who have lost jobs this year and some students have withdrawn. Typically, the school loses about 10 percent of its students each year for "a variety of reasons," but this year that number has jumped 20 percentage points to 30 percent.
More than 2.2 million students attend the nation's nearly 7,400 schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Many are reporting drops in enrollment for next year as cash-strapped parents make the difficult decision to transfer children from Catholic to public schools.
Laid Off? Tell Child's School
"We don't want to interrupt a child's education at any time," Karen Ristau, president of the educational association, said of the Chicago incident. "We are saying to parents, even if you are in trouble, go to the school."
"Don't decide it's hopeless," she told ABCNews.com. "During hard times, the school may do everything to help."
The educational group has set up an online site so member schools can share ideas on how to help parents. Many are turning to fundraising to help with scholarships.
"We are looking for creative ways to keep kids in school," she said.
To combat declining enrollment, the Archdiocese of Chicago has pledged $1 million in additional financial aid, but that is spread across 40 Catholic high schools and 240 elementary schools.
The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has provided $4 million to its 98 Catholic schools, doubling last year's financial aid.
Parochial schools from Wisconsin to Hawaii are holding back on tuition increases and in Florida, St. John Vianney Catholic School has cut its fees by $900.
The St. Petersburg, Fla., elementary school lowered its tuition from $5,200 to $4,300 to attract more students in a bad economy. The school's capacity is 280 students, but only 150 are enrolled. But the new fee program has already begun to kick in -- 162 students are set to attend in the fall and that number is growing.
"The reason we did it is the economy," St. John principal Kristy Swol told ABCNews.com. "It's killing everybody."
"It's typically, 'my husband or my wife got laid off' or 'my business isn't doing well,' or things like that," she said.
A neighborhood public school closed down for lack of funding and St. John Vianney hopes to pick up more students. As an additional incentive, the school now charges one fee for parish and nonparish members.
"We thought about it, and if you are accepting of all faiths and not discriminating, everybody gets the same rate," Swol said. "What we are noticing is we are having fallen-away Catholics come back. We are seeing people from other faiths come as well."
But even parents under financial strain will make sacrifices to keep a child in school.
"Parents tell us they will give up everything in the world for a Catholic education, even those who cannot afford it anymore," she said.
One New Jersey family -- though practicing Hari Krishnas -- is giving up new clothing, dining out and other pleasures so its 7-year-old son can attend Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Whippany, N.J.
Pam, who did not want her last name used, stays at home to take care of her son and a 13-year-old daughter who attends public school. Her husband lost his job in information technology in December.
"The school people have been so helpful," the 40-year-old told ABCNews.com. "They have been considerate and flexible."
Non-Catholics Like 'Brand'
"Our children are our future," she said. "We were brought up in that culture, what we are working for we do for our kids. We want them to have the highest, good quality education."
The family pays $4,445 a year as nonparishioners. At least a dozen others at the school are also struggling, she said.
"People are charging [tuition] on plastic or paying it from their savings," Pam's husband, who did not want to use his name, told ABCNews.com.
They had thought about moving their son to public school, but decided against it.
"He's learning a lot," his father said. "The teachers are good and they really broaden the students' minds."
Barbara Pacula of Wappinger Falls, N.Y., struggles to pay her daughters' tuitions at two Catholic schools, but says it's worth it.
The 50-year-old has been unable to work as a caterer because of two bouts with breast cancer and recently had surgery for a shoulder injury and cannot drive.
Pacula's husband, Jim, works as a state Department of Transportation engineer.
"We have made very big sacrifices," she told ABCNews.com. "We never got to take our youngest daughter to Disney World."
"If they need a pair of shoes, I won't pay $50, but I'll go to Payless and pay $20," Pacula said. "But I make sure that they get what they need and my husband and I go without."
Neither of her daughters, McCarry, 11, or Marissa, 17, receives financial aid, so the combined tuition is $10,000, not including uniforms.
"I try to contribute to fundraising," she said. "It benefits all the kids."
"The Catholic education is important," she said. "I am blessed that my family has good health and knowing that they are in a religious environment and getting spiritual support."
"Who Will Save America's Urban Catholic Schools," a 2008 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found that 1,300 Catholic schools had closed since 1990. But while parochial schools are under financial stress in the nation's largest cities, they are thriving in the suburbs.
"By and large, people really have a high view of Catholic schools," said Scott Hamilton, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington, D.C., think tank.
Catholic education still retains a "very good brand name," he told ABCNews.com.
Many say they believe these schools are "disciplined, keep the kids serious, no matter what their background, and they like the spirituality," Hamilton said. "Especially at a time when we are all having to be reminded that man does not live by bread alone."