Monday, October 17, 2011

Selling (And Saving) Catholic Schools

According to Monsignor Charles Pope, writing from the Archdiocese of Washington this past summer, “over 6,000 [Catholic] schools have closed since 1970.”

Andy Smarick, in National Affairs (Issue Number 7, Spring, 2011) tells us that the decade of the 1970s saw 1,700 schools close. He goes on to say that Catholic schools are as American as George Washington, and were here before the Revolution began. In fact, he says, “these schools long pre-date the American founding.” The first Catholic school, started by Franciscans, opened in Florida, circa 1606. The Jesuits “founded a preparatory school for boys in Newton, Maryland” in 1677. “In the early 1800s, parochial schools—those affiliated with parishes—emerged and became the foundation for Catholic elementary schools.”

Across the country and around the world, millions of students have been educated in Catholic institutions. They have gone on to give back to the world as doctors, lawyers, artists, thinkers, and business leaders. A Catholic education is synonymous with higher test scores, greater achievement, and effective learning. And all of this was done on a shoe string budget, and with none of the bloated bureaucracy of public education. These teachers taught values, ethics, moral codes, as well as Latin, mathematics, literature, English grammar, government, history, biology, and all the sciences. Students graduated from Catholic high schools prepared for the rigors of college.

Today however, Catholic schools are in trouble. “Dwindling enrollment and other challenges have decimated urban Catholic schools nationwide…” writes Carla Rivera in the September 27, 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The days of classrooms staffed by underpaid nuns are over. Now schools come with lay teaching faculty, men and women who must be paid a decent salary and receive basic benefits like health care and retirement. The cost per pupil is also on the rise. Education costs are climbing, and the reasonable tuition of most parish schools is not so reasonable anymore, especially if one or both parents are out of work, like many Americans across the country. There is competition from Charter schools and non-religious private institutions. So-called “helicopter parents” examine every facet of their child’s education, and are quick to jump ship if they think the school across town might offer the key to the Ivy League. So education is a competitive market, and Catholic schools can no longer afford to rest on their laurels.

So it is with that in mind that a crowd of Catholic school teachers, administrators, parents, and support staff gathered at Bishop Alemany High School in Los Angeles this past weekend to participate in a marketing think tank led by Dennis Polito and Caron Willits. The facilitators were part of a program called MAX LA, or Marketing Archdiocese Excellence in Los Angeles. These men and women who worked a long week teaching kids, grading papers, planning lessons, and running schools became Mad Men, marketing their schools in an effort to boost enrollment and grab the brass ring of financial stability.

Saturday’s topic was preschool outreach. How do we bring in more students? How do we keep the students we have? How do we get the word out about the quality education we offer? With a lot of energy and no cynicism, every school representative in the room focused on finding answers to these and other questions.

Participants willingly shared ideas and strategies: updated websites help, and teachers, even with all their other duties, should have class pages that are refreshed weekly with news items and pictures. Social media now plays a greater role: if a school is not on Facebook or Twitter, someone better get on it.

People who normally talk about books and papers and lesson plans spoke succinctly about “branding” and community outreach. Some spoke of unique and clever strategies to recruit students, like visiting local mommy hangouts and selling DVDs of school activities to parents in the hope that they will pass along copies to extended family members. Never under-estimate word-of-mouth.

One principal advised participants to make creative payment arrangements with parents who struggle financially. “Just get them in the door,” she urged. Some schools stay open during the holidays as a way of offering extended day care. Another principal said she opened the doors to her school at six in the morning and did not close them until six at night so children could stay until parents finished work. One school offered incentives to students to plan news-worthy events, and when the local channel sent a reporter, the kids got free dress.

The high point came when Archdiocese Chancellor of Schools, Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt, B.V.M., announced that for the first time in ten years, enrollment in diocese schools was up. “We were losing a thousand students a year,” she said. But the marketing efforts begun last year seemed to be making a difference. Sister then drew a name from a hat and sent one educator home with a $250 gift card to an office supply store.

In an age of failing schools and deep concerns about the future of American education, these participants were willing to devote weekends and additional hours to writing ad slogans, creating brochures, and formulating grant proposals. That is the new paradigm of teaching today, and even though a Catholic education has been the gold standard for decades and should need no huckstering to save a school from closure, teachers, administrators, parents and staff are more than willing to step to the plate and sell. It may be the only way to save their schools.

Logo courtesy of National Catholic Education Association website.

For additional articles about this subject, see the post here.

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