Turning Around a Catholic School

My kids catholic school needs help. I like it a lot, but enrollment is steadily dropping and is nearly at the closure level.

Strangely, it is located in Western DuPage County Illinois. The local neighborhood isn’t great (old, working class), but it is within easy drive of many folks easily able to afford it. Schools in THOSE communities often have waiting lists to get in.

The academic performance is very good, teacher turnover very low and the teachers are good at what they do. Heck, they do it because they LOVE it, because they sure ain’t in it for the money! How many 6-8th grade teachers have a retired phd from Fermilab teaching science? Not many, I’d bet. My first grader reads Boxcar Children books at a rate of one every other day. 'Nuff said!

I think there is a snob issue going on and I need ideas for how to combat it. The location and address isn’t trendy. The facility is clearly unchanged from the 50’s (other than wired for internet). We have no budget for any capital project, so I think we need a smarter marketing strategy.

I’m thinking that our location and staff would be a great one for a marketing push focusing on the CATHOLIC identity of our school. DUH, you say? Not really. Ever since I was in catholic grade school almost 25 years ago, the marketing focus has been on academic excellence. Sure that’s important, but you can frankly get that at most suburban public schools these days with just a bit of parental involvement. Catholic schools weren’t established as a response to bad education, they were established in response to a CULTURE hostile to catholicism in the public schools of the 1800’s. The secularists have wrestled control of the public schools from the protestants, but have only replaced ONE culture hostile to our faith with a different one. Yet that isn’t emphasized today and all you hear about are catholic schools closing.

Anybody else succesfully implemented a school marketing campaign based on emphasizing the catholic identity and how that catholic culture is so different from the world we live in?

There is no easy answer to this, I am afraid. It is an ongoing fight against the current. I do know that the best advertisement is often word of mouth. Frankly, I find that many parents do not value a good Catholic education for their children and instead look to see who has the best sports programs and technology.

Here is our website, perhaps you’ll find something there. I think you need to take advantage of all of the free ‘advertising’ you can get. Invite the local media to events, let them know when your kids work hard to donate their time for a good cause, etc. Let them know when your test scores are great in your area; let them know when a child receives a special award. You have to be on top of this. I find that Catholic schools can be lousy at blowing their own horn and often are afraid to cause a rift with a public school.

We were awarded a grant along with 9 other schools in our diocese and this helped us to advertise and experts are working with our board to plan our financial future, but it is just a beginning.

Best wishes and all Catholic schools continue to be in my prayers.


Have you discussed your concerns with your pastor? I have to give credit to my own pastor for reminding our parish of our wonderful catholic school, at every opportunity. Is your pastor on the same page with you trying to build up enrollment? Believe it or not I have spoken to many priests who regard catholic schools as unnecessary. Can you find out who the person is in charge of the catholic schools in your diocese?
God bless you for all your work for catholic schools.

Check out the Wichita Diocese.

Catholic schools in general have not marketed for years as for many Catholics their parish school was the default. Now the default is public school.

Parents fall for the money that the publics have for facilities. Pools, gyms, cafeteria’s rank higher than outcomes.

The Catholic schools left standing are becoming schools of the elite. This is completely contrary to the Catholic Mission.

I recommend:

Improving the Catholic Identity of your school. Your literature must exude orthodox Catholic teaching.

Move to a needs based tuition model (trending toward tuition free). Abandon the cost based model. Then market the heck out of this.

Get some alumni to speak and write short blurbs on the schools impact.

Market to your bus radius.

Market where 25-37 year old mother’s hang out.

Pose challenge questions on your website and marketing materials, such as “Want More For Your Child?”.

You have to work to get potentials to visit the school. Parents inviting potentials is a great way but is hard work.

Once you get them into the school you have to be ready and have a closer to seal the deal.


Start marketing to the oldest child at Baptism and continuously until K age.

Many parents will not put a younger child in if an older sibling is already in public school.

This means this is a 5 year project and all should understand that the turnaround will take time.

Western DuPage? That’s not really known as a hotbed of Catholic identity, as far as I know. I live in near-in Cook County, which is probably more Catholic than your area. However one thing you’re probably running into is that DuPage has lots of really high quality as far as academics Catholic schools as well as pretty good quality public schools.

That is unfortunate, it is my belief Catholic schools have a strong identity with the Faith, and that should not be compromised just to attract students.

I’m blessed to have been taught the Cathechism in the manner given to me by the Sister’s at Christ The King in the early 60s. When they spoke about the Faith, I hung on their every word.

Take a look at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Catholic school marketing materials. They have some great posters and things already made up - I got permission from them to use a lot of their materials. That way you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Our school is in the same situation. Older facilities, decent public schools, diocese thinking that moving is causing the downward enrollment, even if there are 120 kids in our school and 300 in Religious Ed. I do believe that the facilities are making a difference here. And I think that Catholic school is just “not in style” around here. It’s sad, but true. People do what “everyone else” does. If we had a waiting list everyone would be begging to get in. I suppose it is just human nature.

So we as parents are doing most of the marketing/fundraising/advancement work. It is starting to turn around for us - whoever said to market birth through K is right. We’re just starting to realize our efforts in that area.

It can be done - what is most helpful to us is our supportive principal. Our pastor could do better, but he’s come around a little. At least he isn’t trying to close the school (which I think he had intended when he arrived.)

Well, we are experiencing a momentus change in society right now. My advice is to follow the strategy of St John Bosco, as given to him by the Lord. First of all, attend to your school’s Catholic distinctiveness; see this report from the British Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue: lancasterrcdiocese.org.uk/mission%20review/schools.html . Apparently this document has been widely praised in Rome. Having ensured that your distinctiveness is up to scratch, then ‘market’ directly to the kids. Go to where the kids are (e.g. sports teams, Parish kids liturgy, malls etc.) Put on holiday, weekend and afterschool programs that combine lots of fun with good faith formation. If this is done well, the children will sense that this is a different type of education, one that honours their spiritual dimension and their eternal destiny. They will start to pester their parents to let them go to your school. Identify potential leaders among your current student body and have them attend these sessions as peer leaders. Above all, parents want their kids to be happy at school. Above all, kids want to be with their peers and to have fun. Catholic schools (on the Salesian model) should be more fun and be filled with more laughter than public schools as well as having higher academic standards and better pastoral care.

Tybourne, you ROCK!

That is an incredible link! Thank you very much.

Hey Manualman, you are very welcome! We are blessed in Canada, the U.K. and Australia to have publicly-funded Catholic education. In fact, publicly-funded religious education is a human right, according to the Church’s social doctrine. Yet, this arrangement is under threat from within (lack of distinctiveness, poor faith formation of teachers) and from without (political/ economic pressure).

How would you all advise us to proceed here?

St John Bosco, pray for us.
St John Baptist de la Salle, pray for us.
Our Mother of Good Counsel, pray for us.
Veni Sancte Spiritus.

I’m currently trying to get enrollment up to levels needed to open a new, independent school run by Catholic laypeople here in Houston, Texas. My advice:

  1. Pray.

  2. Accept no compromise on the school’s Catholic identity.

  3. The school must consciously model it’s behavioral guidelines for employees, parents, and students on the Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments.

  4. Find good Catholic support from whatever sources you can. For example, contact the superior of a religious order and ask for them to pray for your school.

– Mark L. Chance.

Thank you for that. I have to constantly remind myself to do the work I am assigned to do and to leave the rest in God’s hands. If He wants a Catholic school open then I’m sure it will stay open.

I would ask three questions:

  1. How much is tuition? You cannot leave out the co$t factor for parents, even in DuPage.

  2. I know you mentioned the area is older/working class, but is that also the demographics of the parish?

  3. How prominent is the school in parish life?

  1. $3,700/kid with fees and add-ons. Very modest discount for additional kids.
  2. It is mixed, but the majority are lower middle class for sure.
  3. I don’t honestly know. We are from a school-less parish three parishes away. Our parish funds the difference between parishioner rate and non-parishioner rate. very little school promotion in OUR parish and we’re working on that.

My children do go to a Catholic school. We do not have an Episcopal school within an hour drive from our home. Before we moved to this area, the internet was a tool that I used greatly in searching out schools. I know that I am not the only one to look at school websites to get an idea on the school. The school sent me a “Welcome Package” that included an old year book and a CD of the Children’s Choir. This was fine but honestly, the competion is strong out there with the other private schools. Many schools have videos right on their websites–talk about an easy selling point. Our old pastor recommended to call down here to the local Episcopal Church and speak with the pastor for advice. He recommended the Catholic School for our children. By the way, before I had spoken to the pastor, I flipped by the Catholic School website because it was PATHETIC–very dated!

Something that the Catholic School offers here and other private schools that the kids have attended that seems to be a very good selling point is before and after care for the children. This can be a key need for parents that both work. Our aftercare program also has sports available for the kids to play right at school–like gymnastics, tennis and golf. Band is also offered.

How is your schools website??

God Bless!

Also take a look at advertising on your local talk radio station. Advertise on the back of Catholic Church bulletins that could be feeder churches to your school.

If your school does the Blessing of the Pets, let the media know that it is going to take place. Our Episcopal School each year was always on the local tv and newspaper for this fun event. Free advertising!

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