Making the goal thrive, not simply survive

| August 27, 2015 | 0 Comments

With their Catholic school family in mind, principals and staffs are learning to think and act differently

Bella Bemmels, 4, gets a push from her sister, Halle, 12, on the zipline at St. Anne’s School in Le Sueur as their dad, Principal Adam Bemmels, observes. Halle, entering public middle school, attended St. Anne, Bella will attend the school’s prekindergarten program, and their sister, Gabby, 8, will be in third grade at the school. The girls are wearing their St. Anne tie-dye shirts. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Bella Bemmels, 4, gets a push from her sister, Halle, 12, on the zipline at St. Anne’s School in Le Sueur as their dad, Principal Adam Bemmels, observes. Halle, entering public middle school, attended St. Anne, Bella will attend the school’s prekindergarten program, and their sister, Gabby, 8, will be in third grade at the school. The girls are wearing their St. Anne tie-dye shirts. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Ask any Catholic school principal what makes his or her school special, and many will say the students, parents and staff together forming a family.

It’s this familial structure that has motivated many local leaders to persevere through constrained budgets, limited resources and enrollment challenges, and has been the impetus for change.

With the start of the school year just days away, some Catholic school principals in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will begin to see how their efforts to boost communication, collaboration and creativity play out — the fruits of grit, perseverance and a lot of hard work.

Showing commitment


Mike Gerard, principal of Mary, Queen of Peace School in Rogers, says Catholic schools need committed leaders in order to succeed. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

For Mike Gerard, the results are already apparent in the fact that he has a school to go back to. When he took the helm last fall as principal of Mary, Queen of Peace in Rogers, the prekindergarten through sixth-grade school was in “dire straits” — families had been leaving the school for the last five years because they weren’t confident the school would survive, Gerard said.

“There just wasn’t a lot of hope,” he said, citing a lack of finances and marketing. Despite the overall health of the school and students’ academic success, as the school kept shrinking, staff levels weren’t adjusted, Gerard explained, resulting in three staff cuts last year.

“Being an administrator of a failing Catholic school is quite a burden, because not only do you feel the responsibility to the children, to the families, to the Church, to yourself, but also, if it doesn’t work out, it’s crushing,” he said.

Formerly the principal of a similarly sized Catholic school in International Falls, Gerard learned what struggling schools could use: a reintroduction to the community. He went before the Mary, Queen of Peace parish, telling members he was there for the long haul.

“You need a decent principal for at least three years in order not to harm [the school],” he said, adding that many Catholic schools face turnover in leadership. “If you’re the greatest principal in the world, but you leave after a year, you’re still doing damage. And really, you need five years just to get everything you want going in the right direction.”

Because Rogers is considered a bedroom community to the metro with many young families, Gerard ramped up the school’s marketing efforts through Facebook and used the school’s garage along Hwy. 81 as a billboard, attaching signs advertising enrollment availability and even the cost of tuition — taking a gamble on breaking down a barrier rather than creating one, based on Rogers’ demographics and stable economy.

“For whatever reason, Catholic schools are ashamed to talk about tuition, and the other thing is, people have no idea what tuition is,” Gerard said, adding that some people he spoke with assumed the tuition at Mary, Queen of Peace ran as high as $12,000 a year. Tuition is $3,490 for kindergarten through fifth grade, and $1,290 for preschool.

Through conversations with current families and community members, his goal was to reaffirm the importance of Catholic education and convince them that the school would be open for that purpose. He was driven by something he could work with — hope. “The families genuinely wanted the school to succeed,” he said.

He considers the school’s efforts successful. Enrollment is steady at 49 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, whereas over the last five years, there was a drop of 20 to 30 students. Although the school offers sixth grade, it wasn’t announced in time to gain students for the 2015-2016 school year, Gerard said.

“But it’s a slow process,” he added. “There’s no magic bullet.”

Another boost was a $10,000 grant from the Schultz Family Foundation that the school put toward student scholarships and teacher technology training. The school offers a “Transfer Grant Program” for students transferring from a public school.

Gerard credits the new Catholic Schools Center of Excellence for providing hope and assistance.

Having a pastor who strongly supports the school also made a “tremendous difference,” Gerard said of Father Michael Kaluza, who was appointed pastor of Mary, Queen of Peace parish last March.

“I would say the priest is 60 percent of the school’s success,” he said. “If you’re nurtured and led and cared for and fed, you’re going to do well, which is why we need those priests.”

Looking ahead, Gerard believes the next step for all Catholic schools is reintroducing them to Catholics.

“The fact that Catholic parents don’t think about sending their kids to Catholic schools is a shame,” he said. “You should always be hearing about our Catholic schools. . . . So we as Catholics need to re-embrace this gift that we’ve been given, because it didn’t happen overnight. It took a ton of sacrifice; now we don’t have the [religious] sisters, and we don’t have the brothers, we don’t have the people who are dedicating their whole lives to it, so we need to make up for that shortfall.”

Starting young


Tim Sullivan, principal of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Hastings, says students’ service is one of the biggest ways the school enhances its presence in the larger community. Courtesy St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School

Amid decreasing enrollment at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Hastings, Principal Tim Sullivan — entering his second year as its leader — decided to bring the kindergarten class to the school from the church campus across town. That opened up classrooms for a pre-K program. But in order to start one, Sullivan acknowledged — and Father Dave Hennen, pastor, agreed — that they’d have to spend some money. A year later, the investment in two full-time preschool teachers has been fruitful: Enrollment jumped from 42 to 72 preschoolers. The program offered parents options in preschool days and hours — and this year, before- and after-school care. Sullivan said competitive prices with local daycares helped, too. He hopes two-thirds of the students in the 4-year-old class will return for kindergarten next year.

Enrolling 309 this year — up from last year’s 284 — the pre-K–through-eighth-grade school operates with a philosophy of accepting students at whatever cost. It also provides incentives for students transferring from a public school.

“If they’re paying less tuition or no tuition, does that really matter in the long run?” Sullivan asked.

Appearances matter, too. Staff members have freshened the building with paint, pictures and by removing obsolete equipment.

“Our school isn’t going to look like a falling apart public school with crucifixes,” Sullivan said, crediting Father Hennen’s leadership and presence. “We need to stop talking about losing students and start talking about gaining students.”

He added that schools are more likely to succeed if they start to work with what they have, but stressed that he’s been astounded by donors’ support.

“Sometimes you have to spend money on paint or advertising, or other things to make a more inviting environment, and everything will flow from that. I truly believe that,” Sullivan said. “And this last year we’ve seen it.”

The school’s major marketing pieces are Facebook and e-newsletters.

“If you can’t see it on a smartphone, most parents won’t give it the time of day,” Sullivan explained, citing parents as a Catholic school’s best marketing tool.

But the most worthwhile are the students serving the community, whether through a Veterans Day Mass, area pro-life groups or other organizations, he said.

Getting creative

Adam Bemmels

Adam Bemmels, principal of St. Anne’s School in Le Sueur, credits the work and dedication of staff members for creating a fun, enriching environment for its prekindergarten through fifth-grade students. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

While leaders’ attitudes are shifting, thanks in part to the work of the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence, they’re still tasked with growing enrollment to keep their schools afloat and sustain the mission of the Church.

To help market his pre-K-through-fifth-grade school in Le Sueur, St. Anne School Principal Adam Bemmels has jumped on the music video parody bandwagon. He has pulled in students and staff to film renditions of the 2013 hit “Happy” and 2012’s “Gangnam Style” — all to promote the school’s pride in its small Catholic environment.

By sharing the videos on the school’s website and Facebook page, Bemmels said it attracts and engages the larger community. What’s more, he said it has served as a recruiting tool for teachers — St. Anne’s has a waiting list of a handful of public school teachers who’ve reached out to him for a job.

A message from Pope Francis at St. Anne’s School in  Le Sueur greets students as they enter the building.  Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A message from Pope Francis at St. Anne’s School in Le Sueur greets students as they enter the building. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

But the school’s heightened profile and reputation in the community took some time. When Bemmels became principal in 2010, the school had 39 students. He recognized that the rapport among students and staff needed to improve, as well as relationships with families and the parish.

“We needed to lighten the atmosphere” and focus on Catholic identity, he said, which the staff accomplished. “It was basically grow, or go. We had to grow. We didn’t have another option.”

Part of the school’s struggle was countering misperceptions in the community.

“There are a lot of myths out there, and there are a lot of things that go around about our Catholic schools — we’re dying and we’re losing enrollment,” Bemmels said. “We needed to come in and show that that’s not the case. We can be viable. We can be vibrant. We can be a very good option for [people’s] children’s education. So that was one of the big pieces — getting back into the community as a whole and showing we’re on the upswing.”

The school — this year enrolling 128 — does that by participating in community events such as expos and parades.

“With the work that CSCOE [the new Catholic Schools Center of Excellence] is doing and their partnership with the schools and the archdiocese, I’m as excited as I’ve ever been in my six years here about the direction of our schools,” Bemmels said.


Category: Back to School