Catholic school pre-K programs fuel enrollment growth

| October 12, 2016 | 1 Comment
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From left, preschoolers Brinlin Mitchell, Ruby Zehr-Short, Asher Rexine, Conor Flack and Grace Stueve sing a song during class at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Brooklyn Park, which started a preschool program this school year. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Teachers at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Brooklyn Park had plenty of moving to do before the new school year.

All but one of its teachers moved classrooms to make way for a new preschool program, which began this fall. Thirty-eight preschool students spend their days learning through various activities at the school.

“I think it’s added a real nice component to our school,” St. Vincent de Paul Principal Lisa Simon said. “The older kids are interacting with these younger kids and are naturally finding ways to reach out, be good role models to them.”

Preschool programs popping up at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have boosted enrollment. After years of decline, kindergarten through eighth-grade Catholic schools bounced back from an average loss of 800 students per year over the past three to four years, according to the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence. This year, schools increased total enrollment by 20-some students.

“The reason there’s been a real change this year has been the help from the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence to help schools develop strategic plans around enrollment and to help develop high quality preschools and to support our principals around enrollment as well,” said Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, the archdiocese’s vicar of education.

CSCOE, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to strengthening Catholic education, began working with the archdiocese’s Catholic grade schools in 2015 to address the enrollment decline. Bishop Cozzens and the archdiocesan Office for the Mission of Catholic Education soon partnered with it.

“With twin focus on growing enrollment and excellence in Catholic schools, the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence is instrumental in expanding preschool offerings in our elementary schools, upgrading school technology platforms and helping us tell the beautiful story of our Catholic faith,” said Jason Slattery, director of the Office for the Mission of Catholic Education.

CSCOE assisted principals in forming teams at their respective parishes to help increase enrollment. Bishop Cozzens added that the Office for the Mission of Catholic Education also worked to help priests who have parish schools.

“And we want to continue to help support the priests in their work in the schools, because we know how important it is for the success of the school,” Bishop Cozzens said.

Success in enrollment starts at the preschool level, which grew by 11 percent, according to CSCOE. Some schools such as St. Vincent de Paul just began work last November to start a preschool with CSCOE’s encouragement.

It paid off for the Brooklyn Park school with an increase of 38 students this year.

“We couldn’t have done it without CSCOE’s help,” Simon said.

St. Vincent de Paul’s new program enticed preschool teacher Sara Kessler to leave her early childhood teaching position in the Columbia Heights school district. Having received a Catholic education, she wanted to help develop a Catholic pre-K program. Moreover, she recognizes what public schools can’t offer.

“The power of prayer,” Kessler said. “We pray throughout the day. We pray as a school and as a class.”

Kessler added that her students look forward to visits from the parish’s priests.

“It’s like seeing a celebrity in here,” Kessler said.

Bishop Cozzens also indicated the importance of Catholic schools beginning at pre-K.

“As we know, even very young children can come to love and know Jesus,” Bishop Cozzens said. “And so, it’s a great gift that we can offer this faith-based education, even starting at a very young age.”

Growing pre-K programs practically benefits Catholic schools, too. CSCOE President Gail Dorn said young families most often select schools at the preschool level. She calls preschool the “funnel” for bringing students into Catholic education.

“That is a big change from previous decades where kindergarten was the entry point,” Dorn said. “It was really important for our schools to grow in that space specifically. We were really excited to see such a large leap forward.”

Some schools with existing pre-K programs or child care also saw improved enrollment. Mary Queen of Peace Catholic School in Rogers added a second classroom. St. Therese Catholic School in Deephaven expanded an existing childcare program with a half-day preschool for 18 students. That included the addition of an outdoor classroom, which will open later this fall.

“There’s so much research out now about how kids are connected with nature,” St. Therese Principal Lauren Caton said.

The Deephaven school increased its enrollment this year through both programs, a 22 percent increase. Caton said 90 percent of the oldest group in the childcare program stayed for kindergarten this year.

“That is one of our biggest successes and one of the reasons our enrollment is up,” Caton said.

CSCOE emphasizes school excellence in order to achieve such successes as boosting enrollment. Components of the excellence sought include a strong community, competent teachers and high-quality academics.

Latino students, families benefit

CSCOE also takes interest in minority families, particularly helping the Latino communities throughout the archdiocese. Enrollment Director Anne Marie Hansen started a weekly radio show on La Raza 1400-1470 AM in the Twin Cities. It helps raise awareness of Catholic school options for Latino families.

Edgar Alfonso, principal of St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School in northeast Minneapolis, co-hosts the show. They also have a segment with Bishop Cozzens.

St. Helena Catholic School in Minneapolis particularly benefited from increasing enrollment through outreach to Latino and other ethnic communities. The school added a pre-K program with 23 students, which largely drew from those demographics.

“It’s been great. We keep having more and more people coming through the door,” Principal Jane Hileman said.

Lisa Hudson, who has a son in the preschool at St. Helena, sees the fruits already. Hudson previously had him in a public school program.

“My son has been more interactive in meal prayers, and he’s only been there for less than six weeks, just discussing faith and even seems more attentive at weekend Mass,” Hudson said.

All hands on deck

CSCOE addresses the varying situations of Catholic schools in terms of facilities, marketing, finances and scholarships in addition to life in the classroom. Many other Catholic organizations work with CSCOE to help achieve different areas of growth for Catholic schools. That includes the AIM Higher Foundation for fundraising, and the Catholic Community Foundation and the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation for grants. The GHR Foundation and Catholic Services Appeal Foundation also provide financial help.

“All of this is really supported by our own Office for the Mission of Catholic Education in various ways,” Bishop Cozzens said.

That archdiocesan office opened in 2015 to replace the Office of Catholic Schools. The change occurred with a shift in focus from administration to mission.

“If there ever was a ‘reset button’ for an archdiocesan approach to Catholic education, it would be fair to say that this year we pressed it,” Slattery said. “We have spent the year evaluating, adjusting and reworking our approach to Catholic education.”

It sets a foundation for the future, too.

“We want to continue to see our Catholic schools grow in excellence in every area so that the education we’re providing these children is able to help them become missionary disciples as Pope Francis desires,” Bishop Cozzens said.

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