Schools office developing its next strategic plan

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, February 21, 2016

The news for St. Alphonsus Liguori School in Prospect Heights this month was good: after a massive effort, the school was able to raise $400,000 and registered 135 students for next year, leading the archdiocese to announce that it could keep its doors open next year, and, leaders hope, continue to grow.

In fact, the news is good for many Catholic schools all over the archdiocese, said Jim Rigg, the superintendent. While some schools are struggling to keep enrollment high enough to cover their bills, many others are seeing more students filling their seats.

That’s a trend the Office of Catholic Schools wants to encourage with the development of a new strategic plan, despite the closing of four schools at the end of this school year.

“We’re doing nothing less than forming the next generation of leaders for our society and for our church, so it’s critical that Catholic education not only survive, but thrive,” Rigg said.

Rigg is working with the school board to start the process of creating a new strategic plan for Catholic schools, following on the heels of the last strategic plan, which was approved five years ago. The project is starting at the same time the archdiocese is working toward reorganizing its parishes in light of demographic shifts and a declining number of priests.

While the uncertainty over what the archdiocesan plan might look like complicates school planning, Rigg said, it’s good that the two processes are happening at the same time, because they are related, but not the same.

“There is an intrinsic and important relationship between the parishes and the schools,” Rigg said, “but they draw upon slightly different clienteles.”

St. Angela School, 1332 N. Massasoit Ave., for example, stayed open and continues to operate under the sponsorship of the Office of Catholic Schools even though St. Angela Parish closed in 2005. In other areas, several parishes have combined their resources, either to form a new school — as was the case for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin School in Orland Hills — or to merge two or more existing schools into one.

The most recent example of that is Pope Francis Global Academy, which will open in the fall and its two campuses will take the place of individual parish schools at St. Tarcissus, St. Cornelius, St. Pascal and Our Lady of Victory.

Rigg cautioned that such combinations are not a one-size-fits-all solution in areas where there is declining enrollment.

“There’s a healthy bias in this diocese toward the relationship between the parish and the school,” he said. “There’s a sense of ownership and belonging.”

The new strategic plan will focus on Catholic identity and faith formation, academic excellence, leadership, school governance and financial viability.

For most schools that close, the determining factor is low enrollment, Rigg said, because tuition makes up the biggest part of a school’s revenue.

The four schools to close this year are St. Agatha Early Childhood Center, 3151 W. Douglas Blvd.; St. Peter, Antioch; St. Edmund, Oak Park; and Seton Academy, a high school sponsored by the archdiocese in South Holland. The schools this year have a combined enrollment of 375 students, Rigg said, and are located in areas with declining school-age populations.

That doesn’t mean every school with low enrollment will close, he said, because there are some schools in low-income areas that receive significant funding from thirdparty donors and because the archdiocese doesn’t want to create “school deserts.”

At the same time, he said, there’s much to learn from looking at the schools that are full, especially those that struggled with enrollment in years past.

St. Therese Chinese Catholic School, 247 W. 23rd St., was on the brink of closure when the principal, Phyllis Cavallone- Jurek, was hired in 2004. By 2011, it had waiting lists at the lower grades and was the first school supported by the Big Shoulders Fund to win an U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon Award in 20 years.

St. Therese set itself apart with its emphasis on Chinese culture, its use of Mandarin and Spanish throughout the school day and its curriculum aimed at making sure all of its students are ahead of grade-level in math by the time they graduate.

At St. Mary in Buffalo Grove, the change is even more recent. Its enrollment has climbed from 260 to 410 in the last five years, according to Debbie Eppel, the director of development, with steady increases each year.

Most of the growth has come from the lower grades — last year there were two kindergarten classrooms and this year there are three — but there also are students who transfer in from area public schools, Eppel said.

“What sets us apart is our Catholic identity and our academic excellence,” Eppel said.

This is third year that all students from kindergarten through eighth-grade have used a fully functioning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab, she said. Many other schools restrict STEM labs to middleschool students or even gifted students, she said.

While St. Mary students work at a very high academic level, the school also provides resources for students who have learning disabilities or other issues.

“There is a misconception that Catholic schools can’t accommodate students with special needs,” Eppel said, “and that’s just not true.”

The school makes sure parents and the rest of the community know the good things that are happening there, and the best marketing the school has is wordof- mouth, she said.

“We collect a lot of referrals from other parents,” she said.

St. Mary, like St. Therese, is a national Blue Ribbon recipient. Archdiocesan Catholic schools have received 89 Blue Ribbons since the program started in 1982, more than any school system in the country.

“What we can’t lose sight of is that this is a highly competitive national award,” he said.


  • catholic schools
  • pope francis global academy
  • st. alphonsus liguori
  • st. angela
  • cardinal joseph bernardin school
  • st.therese chinese catholic school
  • st. mary school

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