Nationally, Catholic school enrollment is in decline. According to the National Catholic Education
from 2007 to 2016, over 1,500 Catholic schools closed or consolidated. This trend is felt most acutely in the elementary school level where
over 1,400 schools closed over that ten-year period. What is driving this trend? On a macro level, many parishes report shrinking
numbers. Most parishes are stagnant or if they are growing, the growth is slow.
Additionally, with the growth of charter schools, many parents have a good, free, option if they are unsatisfied with the public-school
choices in their area. However, I believe one of the biggest contributing issues to this decline in Catholic school enrollment is the
failure of parochial schools to actively and adequately market and promote their schools.
The environment has changed and it is no longer enough to run a good school. Catholic schools must work harder to tell their story to
parents and parishioners of why their local school is the best option. The first step is to increase parish enrollment!
In my work with Catholic schools around the country, I have found that one of the most critical customers, parishioners, often are not the
primary target for the school’s recruiting efforts. Parishioners represent the low hanging fruit for a school and they need to be the first
target for your enrollment efforts. In the schools that I have worked with, there is a wide range of parish participation in the school.
From a low of 13% to a high of 77%, schools have mixed success in enrolling the available children within the parish.
So how do you go about crafting a strategic parishioner recruiting strategy? There are four key steps that you need to undertake.
Parish data is notoriously inaccurate. The parish often lacks the capacity to routinely update their records and often is not collecting
the sort of data that is going to be helpful to the school in its marketing efforts. For the parish membership information to be a valuable
tool for the school’s recruiting efforts, it must be accurate and clean. There is little incentive or resources for the parish to update
this so often the school must take the lead in helping to update the rolls.
Many schools require students in the upper grades to perform service hours and this is an ideal project for students to man a phone bank for
a few hours to update the parish data. What you want to do in this project is the following:
By completing this exercise, not only have you helped the parish improve its record keeping, but you have now identified your potential
targets for parish recruiting.
You want to define your market opportunity through actual data. Many principals feel like they have a good handle on this number, but it is important to actually back this anecdotal knowledge with data. Since most schools offer a parishioner rate, you will know the percentage of kids that are associated with your home parish. But the next step is to understand what is the percentage of the “available” parish kids who are not attending the school.
You can do that by matching your list of students with the list of all available kids in the parish that you identified in step 1. That
will get you an understanding of how many potential parish kids are available to you. This is also an excellent time to identify future
students. Students who are 4 or 5 should be actively marketed to because that is your future kindergarten class.
All of your parents in the parish know that the school exists. But, some have actively made the decision to not send their children to the
school. Do you know why? A client that I worked with recently told me that the main reason why parents choose not to attend the parish
school was cost, even though they were the lowest tuition in the region.
However, when we conducted a survey of parishioner parents who are not part of the school, we found that two-thirds of the parents who we
surveyed did not know the actual cost of tuition. Many assumed it was much higher than what the school was charging. The school must
communicate more actively what the actual cost of the school is. In addition, they should ensure that parents are aware of scholarship or
voucher options that can help offset the cost.
Some parents, have made the decision not to attend the school because they think that the school is not of high quality. One of the telling
data points for the same client was that in the survey of parishioners who didn’t attend the school, half felt that the quality of education
at the parish school was the same as the “free” public school option and that almost 25% felt it was worse! However, the school routinely
was one of the highest performers in the Archdiocese.
But the school had not made a concentrated effort to inform parishioners about the quality of the school. So, they had not considered it a
choice for their students. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to fix through consistent communication about the school’s academics.
Many parishes have very active religious education programs. It is important for you to understand if this is a potential “substitute” for
students to attend your school. While I would never say to make your religious education program worse, if parents are actively choosing to
send their child to religious education and the public school, you need to ask yourself if you have done a good enough job explaining the
depth of faith formation that a student will receive while attending the school instead of just using religious education to supplement
their secular education.
Actively and adequately recruiting from your home base, or engaging in parish enrollment, may seem like a basic recommendation, but many
schools outside of displays at Catholic School Week, don’t actively inform parents in the parish about the school.
Are pastors actively mentioning the performance of the school at Mass? Is the school communicating and recruiting students who are about to
enroll in kindergarten? Does the school ever have display tables set up after Mass to communicate to parishioners about the wonderful
things that are happening at the school? Are you sending out congratulation notes on recent baptisms? Are you tracking the kids who are
going through First Communion? Can you encourage joint service projects between the students and the kids in the religious education
program? These are just a few examples of ways to increase the awareness of parents about your school.
Schools that I work with often ask me about the best way to reach non-parishioners. And many schools are being forced to expand their
recruiting efforts to non-Catholics. Nationally, over 17% of students who attend Catholic schools are not Catholic. It is fine to cast a
wide recruiting net as you seek to increase your enrollment. But, you might find it is cheaper and more effective to first increase parish
enrollment before you spend the time and effort to recruit non-parishioners.
Nick LeRoy, MBA, is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board. Bright Minds Marketing provides enrollment and recruitment consulting to private, Catholic and charter schools. For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve its’ student enrollment, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 317-361-5255.
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