FORT SMITH — Four Catholic schools in Fort Smith have embarked on implementing a Strategic Growth Plan.
Recognizing that new strategies and solutions will be needed to enable Christ the King, Immaculate Conception and St. Boniface Elementary Schools and Trinity Junior High School to grow over the next 25 years, pastors and principals formed an executive committee to conduct a 10-month study and planning process.
The committee’s first decision was to hire the Institute for School and Parish Development (ISPD), a well-known Catholic consulting firm, to gather information and help chart a sustainable future for the schools.
Fort Smith Public Schools recently completed a five-year “Vision 2023” restructuring plan that is of particular interest to the committee. In the fall of 2021, the public schools will incorporate ninth grade into their high schools, create middle schools for sixth- through eighth-grade, restructure elementary schools to house kindergarten through fifth grade and make preschool available to every preschooler residing in the district. All of these changes may impact the Catholic schools in the city and will require a coordinated approach to determine what changes, if any, Catholic schools should make in response.
Fort Smith currently has three Catholic elementary schools for children 18 months old to sixth grade. Those students feed into one junior high for students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades. The city does not have a Catholic high school.
Each of the four participating schools has been working independently on developing their academic programs, marketing their schools to potential students and building foundations to ensure sustainability and provide scholarships as needed. Trinity Junior High is dependent on three feeder schools whose graduates often choose to continue their Catholic education.
“The Strategic Growth Plan gives all the schools and parishes the opportunity to come together with a common goal of sustaining Catholic education for future generations,” said Sharon Blentlinger, Immaculate Conception School principal. “Our challenge is for each of us to come to this process with an open mind so that we can go beyond our own perceptions to consider things we might not have considered before this study.”
Father John Antony, Immaculate Conception pastor and administrator of Trinity Junior High School, has been working steadily to increase Trinity’s enrollment and sustainability.
“Some of the new strategies we’ve implemented involve reaching out to students in public school through the religious education programs in local parishes. Karen Hollenbeck (Trinity principal) and Zach Edwards (dean of academics and admissions) personally visit religious education classes and invite those students to consider Trinity,” he said.
This outreach program, combined with Trinity’s reputation for academics and Christian spirit, has resulted in steady increases in enrollment over the past seven years. Trinity’s 2018-19 enrollment now stands at 231 students.
Christ the King School has 220 students, Immaculate Conception has 324 students and St. Boniface has 128 students.
Other people serving on the executive committee are Father Juan Guido, pastor, Christ the King Church; Father Mario Jacobo, pastor, St. Boniface Church; Dr. Karen Hollenbeck, principal, Trinity Junior High; Zach Edwards, dean of academics and admissions, Trinity Junior High; Rebecca Kaelin, principal, St. Boniface School; and Jeff Plake, principal, Christ the King School.
As all four schools benefit from the recommendations of the Strategic Growth Plan committee, they will be able to implement a city-wide Catholic education plan.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor has given his blessing to the committee’s work. Parishioners are encouraged to participate in the process and will receive updates on the committee’s progress as information is gathered.
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