St. Cornelius sees results with ‘Grace Initiative’

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Looking at declining school enrollment, St. Cornelius pastor Father Dan Fallon knew something had to happen.

“If we fell anymore, we were going to be facing some tough decisions about the future of the school,” said Fallon.

Rather than dodge the challenge, the St. Cornelius school board decided to fashion a solution to promote the school’s attributes and make Catholic education more affordable. The board, with the support of the parish council and Fallon, contacted the Office of Catholic Schools and secured a one-time anonymous $80,000 donation. Thus, began the Grace Initiative, a broad marketing approach to heighten the school’s enrollment and tout the values of Catholic education.

Jumpstarted by the initial $80,000 donation, the Grace Initiative pursues long-term development plans, including fundraising methods typically utilized by high schools, such as alumni outreach, sponsor-a-student programs and an alumni board. In addition, St. Cornelius, at 5430 W. Foster Ave., hosts a monthly church collection for the school’s benefit as well as various school fundraisers.

“A lot of local families don’t see Catholic schools as an option because of the costs,” St. Cornelius school principal Christina Bowman said. “We want to let parents know that they can be here if they want to be.”

While being careful not to undercut other local parishes, specifically on costs, the Grace Initiative seeks to stress what St. Cornelius provides students academically, socially and spiritually that encourages them to develop into mature, responsible citizens. Highlighting the value of Catholic education well beyond dollars and cents, the Grace Initiative markets the school alongside the concept of Catholic education.

“It’s a philosophy and vision more than an economic program,” Fallon said. “We wanted to take financials off the front burner and allow parents to step back and see the bigger academic picture, looking at the full spectrum of what Catholic education offers.”

Last summer, Fallon and thenschool principal Margaret Campbell, a decades-long faculty member at St. Cornelius School, sat with nearly 150 families — the entire school enrollment — to assess individual financial needs. The entire $80,000 donation was then used for financial assistance to support current students as well as attract new families.

Immediate results have arrived. This past fall, St. Cornelius witnessed a 10 percent upswing in enrollment, beginning the current school year with 195 students. Last April, St. Cornelius enjoyed its largest open house attendance in years, a sign that the Grace Initiative is resonating with local families.

Central to the Grace Initiative’s early success has been the collaborative, unified effort of parish personnel.

With a shared vision to make Catholic education available, the “us versus them” mentality that sometimes places the parish and the school at odds has vanished in favor of the greater good, a reality Fallon embraces.

“My assignment here is to shepherd the flock and students are the future of that flock,” Fallon said. “In the end, we want the children as well as the parents to recognize that there’s something much more substantial in place here at St. Cornelius.”