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Marian Catholic High School has seen a big increase in parents who have lost jobs this year and some students have withdrawn.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.