The largest Catholic school system in the U.S., the Archdiocese of Chicago, can now boast enrollment growth in the city’s Catholic schools for the first time since the 1960’s.  In the midst of the worst and most stubborn recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, this news is simply incredible, almost miraculous!

Half of Chicago’s Catholic schools (53%) are stable or growing this year, compared with 35% the last several years.  Also particularly promising given Chicago’s booming Latino population and the critical segment of the Catholic market that Latinos represent for Catholic schools (see here for more), the Latino student population grew for the first time in Chicago in at least five years.

While other large Archdioceses are dealing with consolidation and school closure in an effort to find solid ground to begin building a more stable Catholic school system, Chicago is growing!!  How is this possible?  What is the magic in Chicago?

There’s no magic here, only a lot of hard work, strong leadership, and good ideas being effectively implemented.

First let’s mention leadership.  In July of 2008 Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, O.P. took the helm as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese.  She has brought energy and dynamism to the lead spot in the Catholic schools office.  In Spring of 2009 the Archdiocese founded a new powerhouse of a Board of Catholic Schools, which has sought to exercise leadership in governance and policy for the Archdiocese.  Though it may be too early to be seeing the impact of this board’s involvement, this is a promising sign for the future of Catholic schools in Chicago.  Finally and perhaps most importantly has been the ongoing vital contributions and innovations of the Big Shoulders Fund.  Between their 10 to 12 million dollars of annual scholarship contributions and other funding support to stabilize and increase enrollment, to their experiments in adding regional marketing and recruiting staff, Big Shoulders has been integral to the health of the system for many years.

The marketing, enrollment and scholarship push has been at the center of effective policies of the Archdiocese, and can be largely credited with the recent growth.  There is an Archdiocesan Marketing Enrollment Network (AMEN) that promotes and shares best practices, an increased investment in Enrollment Marketing Staff at the Archdiocesan and local levels, and broader efforts to strengthen the Catholic school brand.

Also noteworthy are 16 Catholic elementary schools that are part of an innovative experiment called Archdiocesan Initiative Model elementary schools.  This 3-year pilot transferred governance authority among a set of at-risk schools from the Parish to the Catholic Schools Office.  The Catholic Schools Office sought to invest in programs and policies that would translate to enrollment growth and financial health.  Though the program only began on July 1, 2010, the schools have already seen a net enrollment increase, many of them reversing multi-year trends of enrollment decline.   The Archdiocese is also committed to ensuring the vitality of St. Gregory High School’s, which is also participating in the Board Initiative.

Finally, the Archdiocese has continued to invest in an effort to boost Latino enrollment in Catholic schools that began last year.  Working together with the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic School Advantage Campaign, and receiving considerable support from the Archdiocese Enrollment Marketing Consultants, Latino enrollment grew for the first time in at least five years by 200 students, an increase of 1.7% of total Latino enrollment.  The Archdioceses remains committed to an audacious goal of doubling Latino enrollment in Chicago’s Catholic schools by 2020, which will require ramping up to a growth rate of 7% annually.  Efforts like this story on Univision Chicago will hopefully continue to build the momentum. 

All and all, these modest gains are a small miracle and an important sign of what is possible in American Catholic schools.  May it be the beginning of a changing trend and a model for policies and practices that can work in other places.

A special thanks to Ryan Blackburn of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools for sharing the good news!

Advertisements