You’re Doing It Backwards (and That’s a Good Thing!)

Noted author Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” has, no doubt, changed millions of lives.  The second habit, “Begin With the End in Mind,” can have a profound effect on many different levels, and is the key to setting personal, organizational, and even spiritual goals (as in answering the question, “Where are you going to spend eternity – smoking or non-smoking?”).  Covey advocates keeping the goal in focus in order to assure that the traveler is on the right road to achievement.

But simply setting a goal is not enough.  Objectives are the necessary steps that must be achieved on the path to attaining the goal.  Personally, I like to think of objectives as “milestones,” since failure to plan for a stone in the road can make the sojourner trip and fall.  The other part of the word (“mile”) is an excellent reminder that the there may be a long way to go to attain the desired objective.  Realizing this in the planning process is much better preparation than finding out just how difficult the process is while the journey is in progress.

What makes matters more difficult is that we’ve been taught to induce knowledge.  Most of our 12 years of obligatory schooling is geared toward making us reach a goal –the attainment of a high school diploma.  This is all the State requires our children to do.  Although the need for higher education (in a college, a trade-school, or specialty training program) is necessary, States’ public education covenant ends after 12th grade.  It is only in the last few years of this process that the students actually begin to seriously consider what they will do with the rest of their lives when they don’t have to be subjected to subjects that may hold no personal relevance for them, and lifelong friendships and relationships will be dashed when their friends try to begin their personal discernments.

Through induction, a step-by-step journey is begun, where each step is designed to be built up on the last one.  Pre-determined class sessions are planned for the progression – for instance, Pre-Algebra, Algebra I, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Calculus…and we’ve got to fit Geometry and Trigonometry in there somewhere too, since the concepts in those areas are necessary for the worlds beyond Calculus.

But that’s the thing – the “milestones,” aka “classes,” are already there.  What if they’re not set up?  It’s at that point a decision must be made – do we create the structures necessary to achieve the goals in order to stay just a step ahead of where we are, or do we start and the end, and work backwards?  If the possibility exists, the latter is the most prudent choice.

Indeed, in some instances, logic would say this is impossible to do – you can’t build a building by starting with the roof.  Well, the fact of the matter is, in some instances, you CAN!  It just depends on the size of structure and the size of the roof.  The “roof” of a pyramid could be created first, and then hoisted by a crane to top off the structure.  It’s all in the design, and in the planning.

Curriculum design specialists know this concept well.  Their knowledge would serve advancement individuals well when they are in the process of strategically planning and executing a comprehensive plan for marketing and development.  Communication is also critical in order to provide a logical explanation to the observation that “You’re doing it backwards!”

Consider our Catholic Schools.  Most of them are still parish-based, with school administration reporting to a pastor or board of pastors that have had little, if any, formalized training in business administration or financial planning.  Fortunately, there are probably parishioners with this expertise that can provide valuable counsel and guidance.  The greatest “millstone” (not to be confused with a milestone) is the subsidy which a parish provides to the school.  More and more, parish subsidies to their schools for operational costs are causing an incredible strain on the parish budget, to the point that when a major capital crisis occurs, or debt continues to mount, the “obvious” decision is to close the school.

One of the more progressive solutions to this matter is a full-cost tuition/needs-based aid model.  But simply “biting the bullet” to implement this solution can also accelerate the road to closure if supporting structures are not in place as part of a comprehensive strategy.

When considering the inductive aspect of enrollment building, the first step that is considered is marketing – emphasize the positive aspects of the school so that interest is generated, parents visit, enroll their children, receive financial aid based on need, and begin the necessary processes to carry on development activities – keep lists of alumni, engage community parents and community leader in providing extra funds for the school, and approach businesses and foundations for financial support.  Therefore, many of our schools embark on marketing as the first step to changing their fate.  But what happens next?  Even the most successful marketing efforts may have a detrimental effect if the next steps are not in place to handle the enrollment wave that may result.

Let’s take a look at the Diocese of Greensburg, and how milestones were put in place over the course of the past 16 years (1992 through 2006) to prepare the Catholic schools for the future of a declining number of priests, deteriorating demographics, and a depressed economy in a primarily rural Diocese.

In 1992, a Diocesan endowment fund was created to begin to address students with financial need.  In 1996, seminars were held with all the schools of the Diocese facilitated by the Institute for School and Parish Development.  Development Core Teams were created, beginning the mindset change from “fundraising” to “development.”  In 2000, plans were put in place to initiate a full-cost tuition/needs-based aid structure in the elementary schools (a similar phase-in program for tuition in the two diocesan high schools had begun several years earlier).  In a true FCT/NBA model, additional revenues generated from “full-cost” parents paying more than the cost of education goes to supply aid for those with need.  However, this would have raised tuitions in the elementary schools to more than $7000 per student – quite a jump when many schools were charging $1400 per student in a subsidized model.  A plan was promulgated to assess every parish of the Diocese between 3 and 15 percent of their regular income to create a large financial aid pool.  Total monies from this fund, as well as the Diocesan endowment fund for tuition assistance, surpassed the amount of calculated need for those applying for aid in the Diocese.  Parishes with schools would no longer be spending 50 percent or more of their regular income on school subsidy, but only 15% – allowing for the potential of additional funds to be used to defray parish debt, make improvements to the schools, provide for additional parish services, or help parents with direct aid if additional assistance was necessary.  Those parishes with no school but children in a Catholic school at another parish could now share in the responsibility of providing a Catholic school education to their parishioners who chose a Catholic school environment in which to educate their children.  In 2004, discussions on a change in governance began to provide accountability on the part of educational leaders, and in 2006, an enrollment estimation and tracking process was developed.  By 2008, schools will be ready to reap the benefits of a successful marketing program, since all the milestones will be in place to ensure success.

Have more significant changes occurred in those 16 years?  Of course, such as the regionalization of the parishes of Diocese (creating groupings of parishes in a natural arrangement based on the habitual patterns of parishioners of those parishes), the appointment of a new Bishop, the creation of an educational tax credit program by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide an additional source of financial aid, the appointment of excellent educational leaders at individual schools, and a dynamic superintendent of schools that has the vision and support to bring all the elements together.  Have difficulties surfaced? Certainly, such as the loss of enrollment since the full cost tuition model was implemented, the continued closure of schools who could not adapt to the new paradigm and the skepticism of some administrators in the implementation years.

It had been posited that it may take 5 years after the implementation of a full-cost tuition model to see a turn-around in declining enrollment trends in the elementary schools, and a 9 years to see a fully functioning system in the new paradigm.  This is because it will take 9 years to completely recycle the current enrollment of a K-8 elementary school, graduating those students who had entered Kindergarten at the time of implementation of the new tuition model.  The Diocese is currently at that mid-point.  Positive signs have been observed, such as the development of waiting lists for primary grades at several of the remaining 15 elementary schools, the call by the current Diocesan strategic planning committee to move in a bold, new direction to regionalize its Catholic schools, and the continued appointment of dynamic, experienced leaders in the schools themselves as well as diocesan administration.  If the 2007-2008 school year shows an increase in enrollment, it may be the indication of a renaissance for the Diocese of Greensburg’s Catholic schools.  If so, “doing it backwards” may become the model for moving forward.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2007