Catholic schools across the country are making final preparations for their celebrations of Catholic Schools Week. When it comes to marketing, Catholic Schools Week is seen as a “pinnacle” event, with open houses, community activities, “Thank You” lunches, “Good Neighbor” breakfasts, Grandparent days and pulpit talks at Mass extolling the virtues of the Catholic school’s ability to educate the whole child – mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Of course, this year, things will be different due to the pandemic, but virtual celebrations are being planned!
Ironically, this is also the time of the year when announcements to be made that Catholic schools will be closing or merging are also being planned.
While it might have been a good idea when it first began in 1974, our society has radically changed since then, and I propose that by still calling it “Catholic Schools Week,” we might be hurting Catholic schools at this point in history. If you look at Catholic school enrollment since 1974, you’ll see that, collectively, its been trending downward for the past 40+ years. While people point to economic difficulties and changing demographics that contribute to shrinking enrollment, and researchers cite a decline in church membership and a trend toward secularism, perhaps we should look at how we use language today, and change the “week” of celebration to something a little more meaningful. Since there’s at least always three forces at work, here are three reasons why retaining this title isn’t a good idea anymore:
1) Our headline/soundbite society. Today’s marketing professionals like to use double entendres or homonymic devices in the slogans or tag lines they develop. For instance, a ski resort in Western Pennsylvania created a billboard with the word “Uplifting” in bold print, placed at the bottom of a picture of four sets of legs adorned in boots and suspended in mid-air over a mountain, as if they were riding up a ski lift.
Similarly, think of the headlines we hear – “Biden Wins,” “Shuttle Explodes,” or “Hurricane Slams Puerto Rico.” Now read “Catholic Schools Week,” and at either a conscious double entendre or a subliminal brain function level, the word “week” can resonate in the mind as “weak,” can create the exact opposite of the intended effect. Over the past few years, NCEA (the National Catholic Education Association) has referred to it “Celebrate Catholic Schools,” but since the activities still only occur during the week, the media, as well as our schools, parishes and Dioceses and Archdioceses, still spread the message of a “Catholic Schools Week” theme and celebration. It’s difficult to change ingrained terminology – after all, schools still call their “application” processes “registration” – and those are two VERY different things. Perhaps there or other forces at work here to maintain that mindset, too.
2) Marketing principles. Simply celebrating a Catholic school’s education one week out of the year isn’t enough. The activities that are crammed into one week sap the strength and energy out of the staff of the school, and, many times, especially in the Northeast and the Northern tier of our nation, activities are cancelled due to inclement weather. When that happens, morale takes a nosedive since “activities can’t be rescheduled because it’s not Catholic Schools Week anymore.” So no community dinner, no open house, and no pancake breakfast. A month dedicated to celebrations would allow for a rescheduling should there be a lake effect snowstorm in places like Buffalo, Cleveland and Erie (interestingly, 3 Dioceses that are keenly aware of the challenges facing Catholic schools). Anyone making the connection yet? A “Catholic Schools Month” would also take the detrimentally homonymic “Week” out of the mix.
3) Educational principles. Think of ANY commercial you see on television. You never see it more than once, right? Of course you see it – all. the. time. With that in mind, one’s mindset needs to change. One open house in the year isn’t enough. One “Good Neighbor Dinner” in the year isn’t enough. One time is never enough when it comes to marketing. As a teacher, think of the classroom, and the pedagogical principles practiced every day. Does every student understand long division after presenting the topic only once? Or division of fractions? Or the rules of grammar? No. We require constant spaced repetition and practice in order for a concept presented in the classroom to be understood, and marketers creatively bombard us with strategically spaced repetition of the messages they develop for the products and services they promote. We need to “Celebrate Catholic Schools” every week. No…every day, communicating the message with parents, parishes, communities, benefactors, donors and alumni.
Marketing communication is at the center of the other four “lines” associated with advancement too. Not only Catholic schools, but all schools, can benefit from the lessons learned here. And remember – the week that we Celebrate Catholic Schools is the best time for increasing….
Retention! If you said “Enrollment,” that would be incorrect. The first step to growing your enrollment is keeping the students you currently have. When you celebrate something important to you, you invite those people with whom you have a relationship! Enrollment efforts to attract new students should have started back in September, and if they have, and you’ve kept in contact with those folks, then by all means, deepen that relationship by inviting them to your celebration events. If, however, you’ve been using Catholic Schools Week as the time to kickoff your enrollment efforts for the coming school year, then perhaps it’s no wonder why increasing enrollment has been difficult for your school.
Speaking of Retention, my book, “Retention: A Systems Approach to Growing Enrollment,” was recently revised and is available at https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/mike-ziemski-med/retention-a-systems-approach-to-growing-enrollment/paperback/product-1m4m8wgy.html?page=1&pageSize=4 Several schools have utilized it to stabilize their enrollment, and are now working on growth strategies in this exciting time of change.
© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2021