Help is here for archdiocese’s Catholic grade schools

| September 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

A new organization is rallying to boost enrollment and promote best practices for Catholic grade schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and it’s calling on the community to help.

The Catholic Schools Center of Excellence, a nonprofit headquartered in Minneapolis, was created last spring to support the 79 prekindergarten through eighth grade schools in the archdiocese after progressive enrollment drops and no proven solutions, despite years of efforts.

“It’s the goal of the Center of Excellence to bring inspiration and hope to these schools,” said CSCOE President Gail Dorn, a parishioner of St. Therese in Deephaven and former Target executive. “We so believe in what they’re doing and how important it is, not just for the future and mission of our Church, but for all of society. Our Catholic schools produce critical thinkers with mature moral values. So, we want to support them [schools] in their efforts.”

Gail Dorn

Gail Dorn

Last year, a group of key funders and Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens determined that local Catholic schools needed a new path forward, and CSCOE was born. The organization’s board includes Bishop Cozzens and representatives from the Aim Higher Foundation, the Catholic Community Foundation, the GHR Foundation, and the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, all longtime Catholic school supporters.

Although a separate entity from the archdiocese, CSCOE works closely with Bishop Cozzens, vicar of education, and the archdiocese’s new Office for the Mission of Catholic Education to ensure common goals and direction, including schools’ Catholic identity.

“It’s important to realize that the Church has her expertise, but there are many wonderful people in the business world and the larger community who can serve our Catholic schools in very helpful ways,” Bishop Cozzens said.

Drawing on local expertise

From the beginning, Bishop Cozzens said he supported the idea of a center of excellence because he saw the potential it had to bring in local experts as resources to Catholic schools that the archdiocese couldn’t provide on its own.

Schools voluntarily work with CSCOE, whose members meet with school leaders to understand their basic operational plans and areas of greatest need — whether that’s technology, scholarship dollars, marketing help or learning assessments.

“It isn’t a one-size-fits-all model,” said Dorn, a wife and mother of five. “We are not a school system, we are a system of schools. I love the local aspect of our Catholic grade schools, and we understand that they need to stay that way.

“Immigrants who built these schools had 2 cents in their pockets,” Dorn added, “and we have so many more resources. We cannot let these schools decline.”

Listening and learning

At the forefront of CSCOE’s efforts is a much-needed strategy to grow enrollment.

“Education models that we relied upon in the past no longer work. Decision-making begins sooner and is much broader,” Dorn explained.

In conducting focus groups of young parents, CSCOE learned that parents are making education decisions when their kids are still in diapers, a shift from learning about a school at a kindergarten roundup.

“That’s why preschool is important for our feeder system,” Dorn said.

CSCOE has been helping school leaders effectively reach out to families and engage in meaningful conversations about why they should invest in Catholic education for their children. At the same time, Dorn acknowledges that CSCOE wants to find ways to make Catholic education more affordable and attainable for all families who desire it, especially if they are enrolling multiple children.

Examining the need

CSCOE also is conducting a retention study to find out why people leave the Catholic school system. But its work really began last fall when the Schulze Family Foundation sponsored a study asking all 79 grade schools what they needed and how CSCOE could help. Dorn said they received more than 1,000 pages of data, from which they determined to focus on enrollment and upholding excellence. She added that CSCOE learned a lot from the study, and many schools are solving problems and seeing results. However, CSCOE would like to promote innovation by providing a forum through which schools can share best practices.

“We feel the product is not broken. We’re doing an excellent job in our schools,” Dorn said. “But we’re very low on resources in many of our schools. And with declining enrollment, resources also decline.”

CSCOE is considering a centralized purchasing program as a potential cost-saver for schools. Last year, CSCOE was able to negotiate a lower price for schools that pooled together to buy Google Chrome books.

“We can do things like that that make sense,” she said.

Although CSCOE’s immediate focus is Catholic grade schools because they have fewer internal resources, eventually it would like to collaborate and strengthen relationships with Catholic high schools and higher education.

“In the long run, CSCOE wants to support Catholic education in general, and we want to create a seamless path from pre-K to graduating from college,” Bishop Cozzens said. “We want to bring the gift of a Catholic education to every level.”

‘We’re here to serve’

While each Catholic grade school is supported by its parish, Dorn said she hopes all Catholic parishes, regardless of whether they have a physical school on site, would support Catholic schools as a mission of the Church. Citing an urgent need to build enrollment, Dorn said one of CSCOE’s primary goals is to engage as many volunteers, funders and supporters as possible.

“We need help with volunteers and resources,” she said. “We want the community to be behind this. And really, schools are doing a great job. We need to acknowledge them for what they’re doing and help them get stronger.

“To be Catholic is to be excellent in mind, body and soul,” she added.

Dorn said help from the community could be anything from prayers for teachers, faculty and students, to volunteering at a school to making a financial gift.

Bishop Cozzens said there are three keys to CSCOE’s success: promoting best practices among Catholic schools; goodwill of all stakeholders, including teachers, parents, school board members and priests; and an attitude of collaboration and service with the archdiocese.

“This is one of the things that impresses me most about the people of CSCOE — them saying, ‘We’re here to serve.’ That’s what the archdiocese and schools need,” he said.

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