Archdiocesan board launches plan to strengthen schools

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, September 23, 2012

With the next 150 years of Catholic education in sight, the Archdiocesan School Board is launching a major strategic plan to increase school enrollment and to provide every student who wants it “excellent academics and faith formation in an economically sustainable way.”

Cardinal George asked the Archdiocesan School Board, which was formed in 2009, to develop a long-range plan for schools, said Dominican Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of schools. He has approved the plan.

“We knew that we needed something very strategic and we needed something to be able to show people in terms of concrete progress and a vision for where we wanted to be for the next three to five years,” said Sister Paul, who is a member of the board.

Six areas were identified for concentration: Catholic identity, academics, leadership, enrollment, management and infrastructure and resources.

Financial concerns gave the plan an urgency. Declining enrollment and higher costs of educating students and maintaining buildings has caused a shortfall for schools and the archdiocese. The schools have come to increasingly rely upon subsidies from the archdiocese. “This trend will become unsustainable in the next few years,” the plan states.

Last year, the Archdiocese of Chicago gave $12 million in grants to schools that could not make ends meet, and the private, non-profit Big Shoulders Fund supplemented that with another $1.8 million. The archdiocese cannot continue that level of financial support, so schools must learn to stand on their own.

During the planning stages, the board took a close look at the fiscal health of each elementary school in the archdiocese. It identified enrollment as an immediate and primary area of concern and began working with the Office of Catholic Schools to help schools increase their enrollments, even as the plan was being written.

“Enrollment drives everything. It forces you to say ‘Why are people coming? What’s our value proposition? Why should a family want to invest in a Catholic school?’” she said.

Asking questions like this prompted the office to examine each school to see if they were better than the non-Catholic options. All but five were indeed better.

Those five, Sister Paul said, had other challenges like low enrollment and financial aid available per student. This research also helped many of the schools discover that their stories about the value of Catholic education weren’t being told to their local community, to the families in the parish and others. So with the board, the schools office began an effort to help the schools market themselves better and increase enrollment through the Fiscal Advancement Stabilization Team initiative, which started in November. It aims to help schools create plans to increase enrollment and improve financial health, academic excellence and Catholic identity. Almost half of archdiocesan elementary schools are part of FAST.

Through this strategic plan, the schools are given strategies and benchmarks to help them to turn things around. Staff of the Office of Catholic Schools will be on the ground helping along with school board members. While there are no plans to close any schools at this time, if any are unable to meet their goals and sustain themselves they may have to close.

The plan also recommends that the archdiocese undertake a fundraising campaign in its parishes, schools and community to benefit the scholarships for students. It also proposes pursuing legislative action in the form of tax credits or vouchers for individuals or businesses that support scholarship programs in Catholic schools.