HAMMOND | St. Casimir Catholic School may have surpassed every other region school with the most students on vouchers this school year.
St. Casimir Principal Lorenza Jara Pastrick said her school has 203 students on vouchers this year. Some were already enrolled but were able to use the voucher because of an expansion in the law last year.
Pastrick estimated the school received approximately $781,550 in state funds for those students.
Each year, the number of students on vouchers has grown. In the 2011-12 school year, 35 students of 234 were on vouchers; in 2012-13, 91 of 262 students were on vouchers, and this year, 203 of 327 are on vouchers.
School vouchers, called Choice Scholarships, allow a student to use state dollars to attend a private school. The program, in its third year, has more than 9,300 students using vouchers across the state.
The state money has assisted Catholic schools across Indiana after many were forced to close because of lack of funds, including Hobart's St. Bridget, Lowell's St. Edward and Hammond's St. Catherine of Siena.
U.S. Catholic school enrollment reached its peak during the early 1960s, with about 5.2 million students in almost 13,000 schools nationwide, according to the Virginia-based National Catholic Education Association.
By 1990, there were about 2.5 million students in 8,719 schools. Since 2000, 1,755 schools nationwide have closed or consolidated and student enrollment declined by 587,166.
For the last three years, Gary's Ambassador Christian Academy and East Chicago's St. Stanislaus School led the region with students using vouchers. They had 159 and 114 students on vouchers, respectively. But Ambassador Christian Academy and St. Stanislaus both earned an F last year from the Indiana Department of Education.
St. Casimir earned a B from the Indiana Department of Education in 2013, after four consecutive years of earning an A.
Miriam Guerrero, of Hammond, has a sixth-grade son at St. Casimir and an eighth-grade daughter at Clark Middle/High School -- a public school. She said she heard about the voucher program at church.
"My son really likes it and he's doing well," she said. "He's been here two years. My daughter didn't want to go at first because all of her friends were at Clark, but now she wants to go. I am hoping that I will be able to get a voucher next year to get her into Bishop Noll."
Including its preschool, St. Casimir serves about 378 students. About 10 percent of its student comes from Illinois, while the remainder come from the Hammond area. There are 17 teachers, four classroom aides and parent volunteers.
Established in 1901, St. Casimir is almost next door to its Hammond public-school counterpart, Lincoln Elementary School.
Tuition for a preschool student is $2,500 per year. Tuition for parishioners is $2,850 per student, and nonparishioners pay $4,200 a year.
Pastrick said they've used some of the state dollars to improve technology at the school. She said the school also received money through the Hammond Gaming Grant Commission.
Pastrick is in her third year as principal.
"The voucher program has been able to help our community," Pastrick said. "It's been a blessing to former tuition-paying families and a blessing to the community."