Catholic schools attempt to stop enrollment decline

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati on Tuesday unveiled its first strategic plan for the 114 Catholic schools in the region in response to a 13,000-student enrollment drop since 2000.

The vision, the culmination of two years of research, calls for an aggressive marketing strategy and a new financial aid source to help more families afford tuition.

“We have reallocated over $3.5 million in internal funds to demonstrate our commitment to taking on this issue of affordability in Catholic education,” Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic Schools, said during a news conference at Bishop Leibold School’s east campus in Miami Twp.

The archdiocese already has established a separate 501(c)3 organization to house the fund, which will be seeded by regional fund-raising efforts in the coming year and a major capital campaign that will get underway by 2015.

About 43,262 students attend Catholic schools in the archdiocese’s 19-county region, including at least 8,500 students in the Miami Valley, including Clark County.

The Miami Valley has seen a disproportionate number of schools close or consolidate in recent years, something Rigg has called a “tragedy.” Half of the 22 Catholic schools that closed or merged due to urban flight, changing demographics, charter school competition and other factors between 2005 and 2010 have been in this area.

Rigg has said many of those closures and consolidations were due to “local and perhaps regional decisions” with no real input from the archdiocese.

The new five-year vision will change that.

While the 38-page plan does not specify whether more schools will close or consolidate, Rigg said that’s a possibility but only as a last resort.

The archdiocese has identified schools performing in the bottom 25 percent on a new financial vitality metrix. It plans to develop individual intervention plans to help restore those schools to viability. Rigg would not publicly name those schools but said they tend to be in urban and rural environments.

“That 25 percent may change from year to year,” he said. “In fact, we hope it does because it shows that we are doing our job and helping schools.”

Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr saw the need to develop the “Lighting the Way’’ strategic plan, which is the first unified vision in the archdiocese’s 190-year history.

Bishop Joseph R. Binzer, auxiliary bishop who appeared with Rigg at the news conference, said the plan represents an agenda for growth and expansion of Catholic school education in response to the sharp enrollment decrease he blamed on religious, economic and demographic changes.

The study included analysis of data on how all of the schools are performing academically and financially and included input from thousands of people invested in Catholic school education.

The plan spells out numerous goals and timelines in the areas of Catholic identity, academic excellence, marketing and enrollment, leadership, finance and governance. Some of those include forming a marketing committee to advise the Catholic Schools Office and individual schools on effective marketing techniques; establishing preschool programs; establishing a new Principals Academy in partnership with local Catholic universities; and introducing a uniform teacher evaluation system.

Rigg said most of the schools are financially stable, with many seeing enrollment increases.

The Rev. Jim Manning, president of Alter High School in Kettering, which has maintained a stable enrollment of about 680 students for the past decade, served on the plan’s steering committee.

Manning believes the new vision will spread energy through the area.

“If we tell our story better, that’s where the marketing domain comes in, it will convince more people to believe the investment is worth the sacrifice,” he said. “For those who are still struggling and believe in Catholic education, I think we have to assist them. That’s where the financial aid comes in.”

The plan identified the most difficult challenge as “an enormous shift in the thinking of many American Catholics, who often see a Catholic education as a consumer product reserved to those who can afford it.” It follows that by saying the responsibility for Catholic schools belongs to the entire church, parishes and diocese, “not just the parents of the students who attend them.”

Rigg said, “We know the No. 1 reason why more families do not come to us is because they are unwilling or unable to pay the cost of tuition.” He hopes the tuition assistance fund will help with that. It will be endowed and continually funded through annual efforts that will follow the capital campaign.

He noted the archdiocese is in active conversations with some donor groups and foundations in the greater Dayton area to establish a fund-raising event, perhaps next spring, to help with that tuition assistance.

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