Strategic plan for Catholic schools solicits feedback

A strategic planning process conducted by The Catholic University of America and scheduled for completion in May 2012 is evaluating Catholic elementary and high schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans in terms of Catholic identity, financial resources, school governance and marketing.

A separate thrust of the planning effort, said Dr. John Convey, the Catholic University education professor who is overseeing the strategic plan, is helping the archdiocese focus on schools that are “at risk” because of low enrollment or budget deficits.

“The big issue – the big elephant in the room – is always,  ‘How are we going to deal with the financing of the schools in terms of the relationship between (per-pupil) cost, tuition and parish subsidy?’” Convey said Sept. 8 at a meeting of more than 100 pastors and school principals and presidents.

Dr. Jan Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools, used the gathering to update administrators on the progress of the strategic plan and to urge them to continue to be open to collaboration.

“This is our time to find a way to have our education be affordable,” Lancaster said. “We need to talk about the serious challenges. We need to talk about what needs to be done in terms of creating a culture of transparency and collaboration. Today is our day to decide what we want Catholic schools to look like in the future.”

Four task forces created

Convey and his Catholic University colleague, Dr. Leonard DeFiore, began the strategic planning process with the Office of Catholic Schools in January. They began by collecting enrollment, financial and demographic data, including demographic projections through 2020 by researchers at Louisiana State University so that “we have an idea where the growth is in the area.”

Separate surveys have been conducted of pastors and selected educators from each school. Two meetings were held in April to identify the problems or challenges facing education. Two subsequent meetings were held in June to discuss possible solutions to those problems, Convey said.

The information from all four meetings has been given to a planning committee, which formed four task forces around the major elements: Catholic identity, finances, governance, and marketing and public relations.

Each task force is in the process of making preliminary recommendations to the planning committee, Convey said.

Survey will gauge feedback

To broaden the scope of the response, Convey has placed online a survey for school families and anyone else interested in Catholic education. The survey, which takes under 10 minutes to complete, is available at http://cua.neworleans.sgizmo.com.

The survey will seek to find out “what people see as the strengths of Catholic schools and why they are coming or not coming,” Convey said. The survey also will look at the “transition into high school” and ask parents with children in elementary school which high schools they are interested in.

The survey will ask the same questions of families whose children attend public school and are involved in a parish’s religious education program.

After the planning committee formulates some initial recommendations, the archdiocese will hold town hall meetings, probably in January 2012, to get additional feedback.

‘At-risk’ schools

Besides the major thrust of the strategic plan, Convey said, a “separate track is looking at at-risk schools.” The plan will make recommendations about at-risk schools and also “recommend potential growth areas in the archdiocese,” he said.

If a school has extremely low enrollment or major financial problems, the circumstances of that school will be discussed first by Lancaster and the archdiocesan Finance Office and then brought to the planning committee.

The number of people involved in the conversation over the viability of a particular school must be limited, Convey said, because if word gets out prematurely that a school is in trouble, “parents march with their feet” by putting their children in another school.

“We would like to give every school a year’s notice if a closing is involved,” Convey said.

Enrollment dips, rises

Across the system, elementary schools are down about 350 students from 2010-11 and high schools are down about 100, Convey said. Researchers are most interested in those schools that have shown large increases or decreases in enrollment.

Convey asked school administrators at the meeting to write down two or three “outcomes” of the strategic planning process that would make the process “positive.” At a similar gathering for clergy, some of the ideas most commonly expressed were finding creative ways to finance Catholic schools so that it did not always fall on the parish that sponsors the school, and also improving Catholic identity.

Why go to Catholic school?

The emergence of publicly financed charter schools after Hurricane Katrina also has placed pressure particularly on Catholic elementary schools.

“That’s why the marketing and public relations task force is so important,” Convey said. “We have to be able to convince parents that we offer a better program than the charter schools. We may be equal to them academically – hopefully, we are not inferior to them – but we also have something they can’t offer, and that’s the whole program of religious education. We have to be really strong about that.

“The archbishop said that we have to make sure we strengthen our Catholic identity and market it the right way so that parents say, ‘Yes, I’m willing to make a sacrifice to send my kids here.’”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond said he intends to have the Office of Catholic Schools, the Office of Religious Education and the CYO/Youth and Young Adult Ministry Office work together more closely than ever “to bolster what we are doing in Catholic education.

“It’s my belief that from those three offices in the past, because of the flow chart or whatever, the division of responsibilities caused confusion,” Archbishop Aymond said. “We will be working this year to eliminate that confusion. Catechesis, Catholic schools and youth ministry are all about forming young people in the mission and ministry of Jesus.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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