When six Catholic schools in the Diocese of Little Rock began taking part in a four-year program through Catholic School Management to improve school image and communication, marketing and enrollment back in 2018, they didn’t anticipate the sweeping changes to education spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it was the focused program, dedicated to long-term goals and targeted approaches that kept them grounded.
“Everything from our website to beginning to do newsletters to elevating (our) mail-out program, new student packets — it just took everything up a notch,” said Kristy Dunn, principal at St. Theresa School in Little Rock.
The program benefited five schools: St. Theresa; North Little Rock Catholic Academy and Immaculate Heart of Mary School, both in North Little Rock; St. John School in Hot Springs; and Sacred Heart School in Morrilton.
St. Edward School in Little Rock was also a participant but closed in May 2019, after 134 years of education. It underscored how crucial a program focused on longevity and the bigger picture can be for schools.
The diocesan Catholic Schools Office chose which schools would be eligible to participate. The grant required that the schools serve or could serve poor children.
The schools shared a $105,000 grant from Catholic Extension aimed at assisting schools in mission dioceses. Throughout the four years, each school would contribute $10,500 in varying increments, with $141,000 covered by Catholic Extension and partner Catholic School Management, which provided the consultant.
CSM consultant Greg Dhuyvetter visited the schools every other month, which pivoted to zoom meetings during the height of the pandemic. They worked with principals, school boards, volunteers and other administrators. A leader from the diocesan schools office was present at each meeting.
While each school is required by the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association to have a strategic plan, CSM helped it form attainable goals.
“Even though we’ve always told schools, ‘Look at your mission statement, and make sure that's who you really are,’ but actually the process of how to evaluate that mission statement and, even kind of start all over at some point,” said Theresa Hall, superintendent of schools. “‘Who are we and what do we do and who do we serve?’ And ‘What makes us unique to any other private school or any other Catholic school?’”
Dunn said school leaders are now able to articulate why their school is unique in an “elevator speech” — as in, four great things to share with someone in a brief encounter.
“We had what could feel like a dead document. It’s in a binder on a shelf. We needed some guidance on how to make it a living document; how it can really be a plan? That sounds so trite when I say it, but we had fallen into a habit of writing it and having it sit there and collect dust,” Dunn said of their strategic plan.
The school now has quarterly goals focused on faith formation, finance, academics, administration, buildings, etc., and assistant principal Jasmine Gonzalez took the lead on quarterly bilingual newsletters.
Because the program involved more than the principal, it gave principals of smaller schools a chance to see how others can be a part of the growth, versus having the fate of the school entirely in their hands.
“I always felt like the buck stops here,” said Denise Troutman, principal the past 28 years at North Little Rock Catholic Academy. “I didn’t want to give up the control, but when I was able to, it gave me a freedom because I'm not responsible for that.”
Troutman is still involved, but others have taken the lead on things like new ideas for marketing and enrollment and retention. Three parents and two teachers also were active in the meetings. While NLRCA has relied on carnivals for fundraisers, they found new revenue streams, including sending letters to alumni and past benefactors.
“The biggest thing to me was that we could involve these other people outside the realm of the school personnel, and they brought their senses, their ability to see where we could go and the progress we could make,” Troutman said. “If you’re in the school working, you're almost in an everyday situation; you don’t have time to branch out and figure out, ‘We can do this.’ We have grown so much in the direction of rebuilding the school, re-imaging the school and rebranding a lot.”
Hall said there are no other plans for another four-year program. The schools office will pass along what was learned to all schools, including a graduate profile, emphasizing the qualities each student should have upon graduation, and an enrollment spreadsheet.
“One of the things that they had to do at every meeting was complete an enrollment spreadsheet. This enrollment spreadsheet told them how many new students they had, and it was also to project for the next year,” Hall said. “And that was something that we will continue to do. Our office will ask them to continue to do that enrollment spreadsheet sheet and send it to us. Because not only do they put how many new students, but how many students left, and if they left, why did they leave? Or why did they come?”
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