Catholic Schools: “Foundational” to the Parish – Part II

A few years ago when I began this series of articles on systems thinking, one article was titled “Catholic Schools: ‘Foundational’ to the Parish.”  In it, I made the bold suggestion that if a parish-based Catholic school closes, that sends the message that the next closure or merger may be that of the parish itself. Why?  Because if there is no school, that sends the unspoken message that parents with young children should seek out a parish that has a school associated with it.  For many schools, the parishioner tuition rate is lower than the non-parishioner rate (which is also a great way to accelerate the closure of a school).  More young families at a parish with a Catholic school means fewer young families at parishes with no Catholic school.  As those parishioners age and pass on without younger families to continue to the parish’s vibrancy, the parishes become targets for merging or closure.  This is not news; this has been happening for quite some time in certain areas of the country.  It’s just that no one talks about it, or, perhaps, recognizes the trend.

In a way, I feel a bit like author and consultant Patrick Lencioni, who believes that he was put on this earth to remind people of things that they already know.  In his presentations, he quotes the English writer Samuel Johnson who said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”  I believe I’ve been put here to see trends and call attention to them.  There is a market for it.  Cars have early warning systems built in to their technology – the gas gauge and that “low fuel” light that illuminates, sometimes at the most inopportune times, was one of the first.  Today, there are cars that will apply the breaks automatically when it senses a collision is imminent.  As for your school, three of the best trends you can monitor are your enrollment, your revenue, and your uncollected tuition.

While I received some unkind comments about the article, here are some observations relative to what’s currently happening.

The parish I belonged to when I was growing up had a Catholic school which I attended and graduated from back in the 1970’s. As time progressed, it merged with another school and was renamed, but the school was still located in the building where I went to school. About six years ago, the school closed. Three years ago, the parish was involved in a study along with three other nearby parishes to see which are the most viable to serve the local Catholic population in the years to come. Interestingly, all four of these parishes used to have a Catholic elementary school at some point in their history, and two of them even had a high school!  Today, two priests serve all four parishes, and there are no Catholic schools associated with them.  While they retained their individual identities for a while, the four worship sites are now considered one parish.  Their Mass schedules changed dramatically and facilities are being used differently than they were in the past.  Is this parish positioning itself for growth?  Um….no.

Another example.  After the 09-10 school year, three schools in the South Hills of Pittsburgh merged – Nativity in Broughton, St. Valentine in Bethel Park (where my wife and I used to lead the contemporary choir back in the day), and St. Germaine in Bethel Park. The new school was called St. Katherine Drexel, and was housed at the St. Germaine facility. Sadly, the 12-13 school year was the last year that this school would educate students. Interestingly, none of these schools used a tuition management provider. The new school did not use one either.  Three years after the school celebrated the excitement of have a vibrant and life-filled school, it closed.

About the same time, the Catholic school my children attended closed, and was merged with two other schools in the Eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. The two schools that were closed did not use a tuition management provider; the school that they were merged into did.  Several miles away, two other schools were merged into one. The one that was closed was about to begin using a tuition management provider, but the parents there couldn’t believe things were so financially difficult that the school had to go that route. I think it became apparent that was the case when the school closed, and was merged with a school that uses a tuition management provider.

The faith-based school requires a system of 5 mindsets – the pastor, the principal, the business manager, the parents, and the school board – to be “on board” with a positive attitude toward the sustainability of the school. A tuition and fee management platform is not a punishment for parents – it’s a necessary tool, allowing schools to shift energies from chasing tuition to chasing enrollment. Rather than just sending out a packet of information if a parents requests one and hoping they return to the school to enroll their child, the school needs to institute follow-up procedures to ensure the school continues to grow, development initiatives to generate financial aid funds, and retention strategies to educate and keep the parent community together.  It’s difficult work.  Disconnecting tuition and fee capture oversight from school administration makes it that much harder, since financial reports are outdated as soon as the principal receives them from the Church.  A tuition management provider allows the school to be a “school,’ focusing on all those other things it needs to do, including improving curriculum and ensuring a safe and caring environment for students.  It also provides payment security, as schools that don’t use a tuition management provider somehow find their way into the evening news reports when money is discovered missing.  And that’s an image that you don’t want your school to have.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2017