As enrollment declines, schools develop strategic plan

A new strategic action plan targeting Catholic schools in Pulaski County is poised to begin implementation during the 2013-2014 school year.

The plan, forged over five months by a 21-person committee of educators, clergy, parents and professionals across a spectrum of backgrounds, was presented for input and approval to Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and pastors May 21.

“This is a plan designed to help our schools work together to become stronger,” said Kathy House, principal of Christ the King School in Little Rock and co-chair of the planning committee. “I’m really encouraged by what we have done so far.”

The new plan is broken down into four main categories — finances, keeping current and competitive, marketing and parent formation/participation in parish life — each with a set of prioritized goals and action items. First-priority initiatives will be completed during the coming school year; second- and third-tier priorities are slated for completion between 2014 and 2018.

Facilitating the strategic planning process was Dr. Regina Haley, executive director of boards and councils with the National Catholic Educational Association. Haley also guided the committee crafting the last strategic plan, completed in 2006 with goals and initiatives through 2011.

“It was very helpful to have (Dr. Haley) leading us through the process, by showing us how other dioceses are addressing issues,” House said. “It helped us get ideas by learning from their example.”

“There was a learning curve for everyone,” said Chuck Toomer, a member of the school board for St. Edward School in Little Rock and co-chair of the planning committee. “Once everyone got up to speed, the issues became pretty clear.”

Last year, the Diocese of Little Rock had 30 schools, serving a total of 6,913 students. In the region — comprised of 34 dioceses in 12 southern states — only eight dioceses boasted more schools. In terms of student headcount, Arkansas is in the middle of the regional pack.

However, the trending data on both measurements is disturbing. Student numbers are down 40 percent over the past five decades, and in the last 10 years, the diocese has closed six schools and consolidated two more. Last year alone two parochial schools, St. Joseph School in Pine Bluff and St. Raphael School in Springdale, shut down despite Pine Bluff’s 175-year tradition of Catholic education in the county and Springdale being the largest Catholic congregation in the state.

Arkansas is not unique in its challenges. According to NCEA statistics, total Catholic school enrollment dipped by 1.5 percent last year and 25 percent since 2000. In that same time period, 2,090 Catholic schools have either closed or consolidated, a 26-percent decrease. Mideastern and Great Lakes regions had the highest decline in students and highest number of school closings.

The new strategic plan tackles some of the issues the NCEA lists as primary contributors to this decline, such as cost and shifting demographics. Priority initiatives for this year include raising funds for tuition assistance and studying a unified salary schedule and sharing personnel, marketing and purchasing costs across all schools to keep overhead down.

Immediate marketing priorities include forming a focus group within the Hispanic community to hone recruitment strategies among this growing population.

“Sharing of resources is something we discussed at length,” Toomer said. “Schools have long operated within a parish environment, with the parish largely responsible for all operational costs. While that worked quite well for decades, we are in a different competitive environment and we’re exploring ways to take an approach that realizes some economies of scale.”

Toomer and House both pointed to marketing efforts as one area where a unified approach by all Catholic schools in the county can pay much better dividends than each school trying to go it alone.

“Advertising is very expensive and so marketing from a central fund for all schools makes sense,” House said, adding that future fundraising events and second collections at Masses are planned with donations earmarked for such things as cooperative marketing and scholarship funds.

Toomer said while the plan focuses just on Pulaski County institutions, implementation of the initiatives could form a blueprint for the rest of the diocese’s parochial schools to follow. As a parent of Catholic school students, he praised the effort as taking proactive steps to compete in the education marketplace.

“It will take some change in the way we do things to reverse enrollment trends,” he said. “This plan represents a commitment on the part of the leadership of the Diocese of Little Rock to bring about that change.”

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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