How to save a Catholic school

Something unexpected came from the site of The Catholic Spirit of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

What works: St. Matthew’s School increases enrollment by 30 percent    
By Julie Carroll  
Thursday, 03 December 2009

While most inner-city schools continue to struggle in a difficult economy, one school — St. Matthew’s in St. Paul — has been experiencing unprecedented growth.

Last year, enrollment at the school increased 30 percent. This year, despite the worst recession since World War II, enrollment continues to grow.

What’s the secret? It depends on whom you ask.

Like other urban schools, St. Matthew’s had been losing students at an average of 10 to 15 per year. When the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school’s enrollment dipped down below 140 students, principal Doug Lieser realized he needed to find a way to increase enrollment and financial support if the school was to survive.

The first thing Lieser did was conduct a survey asking parents why they chose St. Matthew’s for their children. Their answers surprised him.

“We have two mobile computer labs, we have a great lunch program, a great curriculum. . . . But that’s not why they’re choosing us,” Lieser said. “The three primary reasons that we found for our families choosing St. Matthew’s were that we were small, we were Catholic, and we provided a safe environment.”

Lieser took that information and designed a marketing campaign around it that included yard signs, newspaper advertisements and word of mouth.

Around the same time, alum Jerry Sexton worked with Lieser and Father Steve Adrian, pastor of St. Matthew’s, to form an Alumni and Friends group. Sexton used his experience in publishing to create a school newsletter for alumni, parents and donors.

‘Communication is key’

While every urban school is unique, one common problem many of them share is poor communication, Sexton said. “Commu­ni­ca­tion is key. . . . You raise money for tuition support and then you publish the fact that you have tuition support money.”

The newsletter is filled with success stories to show how St. Mat­thew’s is making a difference in students’ lives and in the community.

“You love God by loving your neighbor, and that is what we’re about at the school,” Sexton said.

Another reason St. Matthew’s has succeeded in recent years, according to Father Adrian, is its focus on serving families with limited financial means.

“There are just tons of people who never ever thought of a Catholic education because they assume they could never afford it,” he said. “So what we have done is rather successfully gotten the word out that money cannot be the issue, that we will find the money and you’re welcome in the school. And people come.”

Ninety percent of families with children at St. Matthew receive financial aid, Lieser said.

The school is able to provide scholarships through support from the archdiocese; FOCUS, a nonprofit organization Sexton helped found to raise funds for urban Catholic schools; and assistance from other organizations and donors.

Since it was formed in 2007, Alumni and Friends has raised an additional $270,000 for the school, Father Adrian said.

Being a ‘good Samaritan’

To those who might question why St. Matthew parish directs so much of its resources toward education, Father Adrian responds: “What we say to our donors is that the commitment on the part of St. Matthew’s is to seek to be the ‘good Samaritan’ on the banks of the Mississippi River, and part of that mission is the educating of kids.”

He points out that a majority of children attending St. Matthew’s are His­panic.

“We all know that the Catholic population in the United States is growing largely because of Spanish-speaking immigrants, and that it’s not too far down the line when those folks are going to be making up, if not the majority, at least a very significant chunk of what the church is, and it’s out of those folks that the future leadership is going to come,” Father Adrian said.

If we don’t invest in the education of the kids of Latin background today, we’re missing the opportunity to provide new, fresh, well-prepared Catholic leadership a generation from now.

All of St. Matthew’s efforts — the marketing campaign, the newsletter, the Alumni and Friends group, and the focus on mission — have shown impressive results.

In 2007, enrollment at St. Matthew’s was 136. This year, 192 students attend the school, two classes have waiting lists and the retention rate is 95 percent.

“The future of the school is strong,” said Father Adrian. “And it’s growing.”


And their advice?

How Catholic schools can replicate St. Matthew’s success

  • “Be clear about who you are, what your message is,” principal Doug Lieser advises. “In our case, we did it through a survey. Other schools might do that in a different way. But be clear about it and make sure people know it.”
  • “Make it a group effort,” Lieser said. St. Matthew’s owes its success to its pastor, alumni, donors, volunteers and a host of people acting together toward a common goal.
  • “Put together a handful of people who are really committed to turning the school around and who have financial resources,” said Father Steve Adrian, pastor. “Then trust upon the good instincts and the energy of those folks.”
  • “Get the word out as clearly as you can that everyone’s welcome,” he added.
  • “I found that alumni will respond to the raising of dollars when you can say and you can demonstrate that because of their gift you were able to welcome ‘X’ number of new students into the school,” Father Adrian said.
  • Expand your school’s mission to improving the community, Father Adrian added. In addition to educating children, St. Matthew provides a child care center, it’s a St. Mary’s Clinic and Loaves and Fishes site, the rectory is a Catholic Worker House, etc.
  • “Take a look at your communications,” suggested St. Matthew’s alumnus Jerry Sexton. Make sure you’re communicating far and wide the good things that the school does.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JaneC says:

    The school I attended for seven years (6th grade through high school) began in 1995 with sixty-five students and doubled in size in its first five years. How? 1. Traditional education: both Latin and Greek offered, good classic literature texts, solid religion classes, no standardized tests. 2. Frequent daily Mass and confession made available to both students and parents. 3. Aggressive fund-raising that allowed them to keep tuition low and offer huge discounts on tuition for large families (I, as an only child, was very much an anomaly–everyone else in my graduating class had a minimum of four siblings).

    No, the school wasn’t perfect, but they had (and still have) a good thing going, a structure that has made them successful as a school and helped their students succeed as well.

  2. Laurinda1230 says:

    Wow, that is amazing! Blessed be God forever!

    This gives my fiance and I hope for our future. We are currently desiring to homeschool and working towards this financial goal because we have several friends who homeschool and we see what a blessing and enriching it is in their faith-filled family lives. We do not want our children to be ‘socialized’ at school and even some Catholic schools aren’t aware of what the children are learning from each other. It is not that we are afraid of other people’s children, we are afraid of other people’s parenting skills…

    Anyway, we are also realistic. It is not easy to homeschool and we will at some point consider sending our children to Catholic schools. I think we can manage. My future husband and I will have our PhD’s so we should be capable of teaching our children. But it is good to know of wonderful schools out there that are teaching charity. I pray their catechesis is excellent as well!

  3. ckdexterhaven says:

    Great story. Somewhere along the way, Catholic schools lost their Catholic (ahem) identity. Sounds like this school is getting back on track. Back in the day, Catholic school meant superior education, superior faith formation. I’m especially encouraged that the principal addressed the tuition concerns. How wonderful that they’re reaching the low income community!

  4. GregH says:

    Catholic schools are too expensive. Here in the Diocese of Arlington it costs $8k to $12k a year to send your child to a Catholic high school. Grade school costs at least $4k per year. Who can afford that if you have several children? If you want to send your children to Catholic school you must have both parents working. No-win situation.

  5. I have 8 children.

    The oldest is in the College Seminary; the Archdiocese covers a good 75% of the cost.

    The next is in 11th grade at the local Catholic high school. They have an excellent financial aid program, covering about 75% of the cost.

    The third is in an all-boys Catholic (boarding) high school — where no student is ever turned away for lack of financial resources.

    4-7 are in the local Catholic elementary school at our parish. We are very active volunteers, and there is a “Friends” fund and discounts for large families.

    I’m not a wealthy man, and my wife only works limited part-time — but we have found a way to make Catholic education work.

    Kudos for St. Matthew’s School!

  6. JMody says:

    Catholic schools are expensive when they fail to think like these gentlemen have done, or when they decide they want to be elitist and price themselves out of reach on purpose (which is apparently what the last director of my own alma mater did, and drove off over 12 lifetime-dedicated and competent faculty).
    What struck me here was how this compares with Christ’s admonitions at various points in the gospels about living in the world — one of my favorite jokes is a story about a man in a flood who keeps turning away help because God will save him, and you should go help someone else. So he turns away a truck, and a boat, and even a helicopter as the floodwaters rise and eventually sweep him away to his death. At the Pearly Gates, he asks St. Peter “But why was I not saved from the flood? Surely I had enough faith?” And St. Peter asks him in reply “Well, yes, but who do you think sent the truck, and the boat, and the helicopter?”
    Well these guys did the same thing. They were probably praying for a solution, and God did not send them a bunch of tuition-paying rich kids. But they found they could take polls, and they could do some good, deep, critical thinking, and they could advertise and do things they hadn’t thought of before, and suddenly they are achieving their goal, by using their talents and tools, and not by waiting for God’s flaming hand to write on the wall as with Nabuccodonosor … bravo, gents. And thanks be to God!

  7. MichaelJ says:

    Anybody else see something missing in the advice given for ways to help a Catholic School to be successful, or am I just being snarky?

  8. Bede says:

    For two years, I was marketing director for a tiny urban Catholic school in Tacoma, WA, a place with twice as many “ex-Catholics” as Catholics.

    The neighborhood is the lower end of working class, and school enrollment had been spiraling downwards for two decades. Even so, we were able to turn it around pretty quickly by following a plan remarkably similar to this one.

    In two years enrollment was at 120% of the day I was hired, and to this day it continues to rise.

    I remain convinced that our Catholic schools can thrive and prosper, if we can just get the message out in a consistent, positive way.

  9. Sam Schmitt says:

    No school pays for itself – i.e. the tuition alone doesn’t come close to paying bills.

    Let’s say there’s 100 students in the school at $10,000 a student – which seems high I admit. That means the school is taking in $1,000,000 from tution. If the school has 10 full-time teachers, they will cost at least $50,000 each per year (salary and benefits) or more if they are in an expensive part of the country like the Washington DC area. That’s half of your budget right there. Then there’s compensation for the administration (principal, secretary, etc.), money for upkeep of the buildings and grounds, sports, the library, computers, etc., not to mention financial aid to students, tution discounts for mutiple family members, capital improvements – you get the idea. We’re way beyond $1,000,000 now.

    I have heard of high schools with a less $10,000 tuition – but these are either heavily subsidized by the church, have a guardian angel donor, volunteer teachers, etc.

  10. GregH,
    Here on the other side of the Beltway, the tuition for Catholic elementary school is $10,000-12,000 for the first kid. For 3 kids it would cost us about $20,000. Curently we are homeschooling and even enrolled with a Catholic program it costs less than $2,000 for 4 kids. I’ve wanted to send them to a good school just to resume some semblence of a normal life, but we just can’t afford it. Plus, what would I do with all the little ones during all these “required” volunteer hours?

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