The National Catholic School Mentor Program began with a conversation about Catholic school enrollment, why families are increasingly deciding not to send their children to Catholic schools, and how administrators can encourage them to come back.

The National Catholic School Mentor Program kicked off in August with a three-day retreat at the Carmelite Spiritual Center in Darien, Illinois. (Submitted photo)

Using a 2016 research study, “Catholic School Choice: Understanding the Perspectives of Parents and Opportunities for More Engagement,” the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) engaged the services of Meitler, a Catholic consulting company based in Milwaukee.

Meitler was asked to plan and submit a proposal for a pilot program that hand selected 11 principals from across the nation and gathered them together to help make a plan to increase enrollment at their respective schools.

To select the 11 educators, the NCEA initiated conversations with a number of superintendents across the country. The team wanted a mix of schools that were choice, and some that were not. They looked at schools with lower enrollment numbers but not schools fearing closure and, finally, at principals who superintendents know are transformational leaders. Angela Gunderson, the senior consultant for academics and program coordinator for Meitler, said to increase enrollment across the board schools need to make significant long term change and to do that it’s imperative that they have leaders with a vision.

“Status quo is just not working,” she said. “Everything we do moving forward needs to be transformational.”

The program kicked off in August with a three-day retreat at the Carmelite Spiritual Center in Darien, Illinois. Meitler brought in national speakers and representatives to talk about why families are not choosing Catholic schools, and what they’re looking for in an education for their child, whether it be Catholic or not.

Speakers addressed enrollment management, the curriculum, the financial aspect, and emphasized the importance of making sure that schools are sharing the fact they provide an affordable rigorous academic environment.

“The joke between educators is that the superior academics we offer are Catholic schools’ best kept secret,” Gunderson said.

Over the three days, speakers highlighted marketing and why it’s important to focus on different audiences so schools don’t have one blanket approach for everyone, and say more about themselves than just the fact that they’re Catholic. Principals were encouraged to look at where they see enrollment decreasing from year to year and not just on finding new families to come into their schools, but to market to the families that are already there so they don’t leave.

“What we’re finding in our research nationally is that parents are looking for quality academics, competent and qualified teachers, and a safe environment,” Gunderson said. “Parents aren’t choosing schools because they’re Catholic anymore. In a lot of areas, the public schools are looked at as just fine.”

At the three-day Leadership Institute, the 11 were broken up into three groups based on a self assessment of what they knew they needed to work on and bring back to their schools. Together, they were encouraged to focus on small immediate goals but not lose sight of the bigger picture.

“It was a jam-packed three days but there were things they could do immediately,” Gunderson said. Several returned and began to utilize social media in a more productive way. One principal realized that she could livestream her open house for parents who couldn’t make it. She did it during the lunch hour and got a great response. “Thinking outside the box,” Gunderson said, “looking at things that people haven’t considered. It makes a big impact.”

Over the course of the year, the 11 principals virtually meet with their mentors at Meitler at least once every other month, but are in constant communication with their mentors and each other as they make progress through their goals. Their mentors are available for questions and happy to brainstorm ideas.

Now the group is halfway through the program and Gunderson says that they’ve had nothing but success and positive feedback.

“It’s working,” she said. “All the principals are still fully engaged and their work together has led the research team to a deeper understanding of what it’s going to take, and what the schools need to be doing to continue to move forward and thrive.”

Meitler hopes to gather the 11 principals together at the end of the school year so they can present their Enrollment Management Plans, collect any other pertinent information that has come up, and see each other face to face once again. Gunderson said, “The relationships built throughout this program have been significant.”

The program’s next steps have yet to be confirmed but are being discussed with FADICA and NCEA, and Gunderson is hopeful that the donors will continue to support their efforts and help them run the mentorship multiple times so they can make a significant change throughout Catholic education across the country.