Hot Springs school has new five-year strategy

St. John kindergartener Jessica Jennings (left) poses with second grader Cross Cardenas and her sister Natalie Jennings, a first grader, after they shopped for new school uniforms July 28 in Hot Springs.
St. John kindergartener Jessica Jennings (left) poses with second grader Cross Cardenas and her sister Natalie Jennings, a first grader, after they shopped for new school uniforms July 28 in Hot Springs.

HOT SPRINGS — After a year of discussion and study, a five-year strategic plan for St. John School was approved and is now being implemented.
Father Erik Pohlmeier, pastor of St. John and St. Mary churches in Hot Springs, promulgated the plan, which was completed April 18.
In his letter introducing it, he stressed four key areas in which the school needed to focus. These are creating a quality and imaginative marketing plan, increasing enrollment, ensuring financial stability and enhancing the curricular and co-curricular programs.
He also noted that while these were ambitious goals, they were essential for the school to provide its students with opportunities to grow and develop as leaders in their school, church and community.
“This is our 100th anniversary celebration year and it is a good time to review and look back at what we have done well,” Father Pohlmeier said in an interview with Arkansas Catholic. “We recognize that certain sacrifices have been made and we renew our dedication to provide a quality Catholic education.”
Implementation of the plan began this summer and continues through 2013. It was put together by a 30-member strategic planning committee composed of school administrators, parents, teachers, alumni, members of the community and the three Catholic parishes in Garland County: St. John and St. Mary and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hot Springs Village.
Brother Bill Campbell, SM, of the National Catholic Educational Association, helped the school develop the strategic plan.
He said the committee, which met six times between May 2007 and March 2008, discussed current census data as well as other statistics and information from the Catholic Schools Office for the Diocese of Little Rock.
Members also shared their thoughts regarding the school’s future, but, he said, the main tool used in developing the plan was the results of a survey of parishioners, parents of current and former students, faculty and staff.
Brother Bill said the response to the surveys was better than expected.
“If 5 percent of the surveys (sent out) are returned, it is a good response,” he said. “At St. John, they had a much better response across all populations participating.”
Brother Bill said strategic planning is beneficial to any school.
“Pastors and principals are so busy with the day-to-day needs of running a school, I believe it is a good thing for them to take some time to step back and look at where they are,” he said.
“Usually it helps to have an outside facilitator to give a neutral prospective and ask the hard questions,” he said.
These include: “Are we maintaining our Catholic identity? Is the faculty being their most effective? Are the governing councils providing good leadership? Are the kids happy? Are the parents satisfied?”
The committee identified four major concerns as defined in the strategic plan: A need to market the school, grow enrollment, strengthen its financial stability and invigorate academic life.

Marketing
The strategic plan detailed a need to increase awareness of St. John School as a leader in providing a quality Catholic education. In order for the general community to know of the education available, the committee recommended that the school cultivate resources within its parish community and the larger Catholic community as well as increase visibility in the Hot Springs area.
St. John principal, Elizabeth Shackelford, told Arkansas Catholic that the school had already begun implementing the plan’s recommendations with the hiring of Marianne Layne on Aug. 4.
Layne was hired as director of advancement and her job will include marketing, compiling an alumni database and fundraising, Shackelford said.
The plan also stressed a need to foster education in a safe, friendly and caring environment, so the physical plant at St. John School underwent a “face-lift” during the summer vacation, Shackelford said.
The playground was re-configured, some of the classroom doors were replaced, some classrooms were re-carpeted and many areas received a new coat of paint, she said.
Projects to be completed soon include repairing the stairway to the office and replacing the chain-link fence around the upper area of the campus with an ornamental iron fence, Shackelford added.

Increasing enrollment
Last year, there were 125 students enrolled including the preschool program. The school offers pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. In addition to increasing enrollment, the plan stressed a need to retain students, sighting a declining enrollment in all grades.
In the 1960s the number of religious sisters teaching as well student enrollment decreased, so the seventh and eighth grades were dropped. In 1998, seventh grade was added back and the eighth grade followed the next year. While the plan specifically mentioned studying the seventh and eighth grades, there are more students in the eighth grade this year than last, Shackelford explained.
The plan recommended further study to find out why students move to other schools in the upper grades. It stressed that the positives and negatives of St. John must be identified in order to learn how to retain students.
The plan also suggested assessing the need and impact of developing a day care center, which could serve as a feeder for enrollment into the grade school.
“The strategic planning committee’s decision to study the feasibility of establishing a day care is a response to the interest expressed by parents, parishioners and committee members. We feel it would meet a need in the Hot Springs community,” Shackelford said.
In 1987, the school implemented its successful pre-kindergarten program. According to the plan, a study to consider a day care would begin with the 2010-2011 school year.
Brother Bill said census data shows that Garland County has vitality and is growing.
Father Pohlmeier agreed and said that much of the increasing Catholic population is Hispanic. The parish offers a Mass in Spanish at 3 p.m. on Sundays. Therefore, the plan recommended the school reach out to this population and try to increase Hispanic student enrollment.
The committee also recommended a study to identify additional funding for scholarships to assist low- to middle-income families. This study would begin in the fall of 2009.

Financial Viability
The plan called for the development of a finance committee that would present a plan for a balanced budget by April 1 of each year to determine the tuition for the following school year.
Tuition for the 2008-2009 school year is $2,900 for Catholic students and $3,500 for non-Catholics. There is a $100 discount for each additional child in a family.
These rates are far lower than the actual cost of educating each student. According to the October 2007 enrollment and financial records of the Office of Catholic Schools, the projected cost for educating each student at St. John was $6,930 for the 2007-2008 school year.
As a result, the school makes up the difference through parish and community fundraising. The plan acknowledged that continuing to raise tuition would be a burden on families, so it recommended researching other funding options such as grants and planned-giving programs.
Shackelford said part of Layne’s job would be investigating these options.
The plan also showed that teacher salaries at St. John, while in line with the diocesan guidelines, do not compare favorably with salaries offered in the area’s public schools. To keep good teachers, the training, benefits and salaries would need to be improved. This is another reason to find additional financial resources.

Academic life
The strategic plan stated that Catholic education must encourage the spiritual development of students through religion class, Mass and other Catholic events and practices. But to educate the whole student, it recommended a study to access options in expanding the existing fine arts program and additional co-curricular activities that are age appropriate.
As a result, Shackelford said that the part-time health and physical education teacher on staff will become full-time this fall.
The committee also asked for a feasibility study on hiring a resource teacher for students with special needs. This study is scheduled to begin during the 2009-2010 school year.
The plan also called for an alignment of curriculum so that what is taught in each grade builds on previous material. For example, the committee stressed increasing the difficulty of science projects from grade to grade and the need to create a progressive writing program.
Both Father Pohlmeier and Shackelford expressed confidence that the strategic plan would help ensure that St. John School continues to provide a superior education to the Hot Springs community.
“We had a wonderfully dedicated committee,” Shackelford said. “Some of our meetings were very long as we broke into smaller discussion groups, but everyone was very understanding.”
But nothing was cast in stone, she added. A strategic plan is a guide or a roadmap that would be reviewed each year.
“As we meet our goals, the plan will be continually modified and updated,” she said. “Our goal is to insure that St. John continues to provide a quality Catholic education for the Hot Springs community for another 100 years.”
Father Pohlmeier said the 125-page strategic plan, its goals and findings was not given to parishioners, but those who wish to get more details about it may contact him.

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