Rogers school: Yes, we’re open

| November 25, 2015 | 0 Comments
In the first- and second-grade classroom at Mary, Queen of Peace School in Rogers, Joe Macke and Addison Hynes work on an assignment in the foreground while teacher Jennifer Bolduc works with other pupils in the background.

In the first- and second-grade classroom at Mary, Queen of Peace School in Rogers, Joe Macke and Addison Hynes work on an assignment in the foreground while teacher Jennifer Bolduc works with other pupils in the background. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

Two decades ago, Rogers was a rural small town.

“Our cemetery used to be between two hayfields,” Mike Gerard said of the Catholic cemetery. “Now it’s between two strip malls.”

As the area just beyond the I-494 and I-694 junction transitioned from rural to suburban, the Catholic community also underwent a significant change.

In 2003, St. Walburga Parish in nearby Hassan Township merged into St. Martin of Tours, the in-town parish in Rogers, and the combined parish was renamed Mary, Queen of Peace. What for 50 years had been St. Martin School took the parish name.

A lack of name recognition lingers, adding to the identity crisis the school is trying to overcome. Gerard, the second-year principal of Mary, Queen of Peace School, said he talked with people who went to Mass at the church across the street from the school who said, “Oh, I didn’t even know it was open.”

He’s been trying everything he can think of to let people know the school is there, is open and is going to stay open.

“This school has lost 20 students in the last five years,” he said, “and the main issue is that people weren’t sure the school was going to remain open.”

Changes in leadership at both the school and the church plus the adding and then dropping of middle school grades hasn’t helped  in that regard, Gerard pointed out.

From a high of 197 students in pre-kindergarten to grade eight seven years ago, Mary, Queen of Peace now has 71 students preK-to-grade 5.

Gerard also found there was a lack of information about the cost of tuition. “If you don’t know what tuition costs, you assume you can’t afford it,” he said.

An attractive mailer now plainly stresses “affordable tuition $349 per month.”

Gerard realizes he’s facing other obstacles, ones shared with many other Catholic schools. What he termed “the cultural disagreement on Christianity in general” sees Catholics as bigots on some social issues, he said.

“Some people have a very dim view of us [Catholics],” he said, “and some are former Catholic school students.”

For others, “faith doesn’t mean much,” Gerard said, “so to get people to pay tuition for something like education that’s free [elsewhere] is difficult.

“But Jesus never said it was going to be easy,” he added.

Hopeful indicators

Several things give Gerard hope. First, the parish of some 650 families includes a good pool of children from which to draw students.

“We have kids all over the place,” he said. “I’d bet 20 percent of the Mass attendance is children. And secondly, people here want Catholic education. The key is recognizing that and adding stability. The most important thing to do is be positive.”

The success of last year’s kindergarten roundup was a good sign.

“The first thing I did, I got up and spoke at Mass,” Gerard said. “I made two points: One, I’m here for the long run, and two, Catholic education is worth it.”

A Mary, Queen of Peace School float in the town parade may have been the highlight of his shotgun marketing approach.

The school has relied on its website, Facebook, information tables at church festivals, banners along  Hwy. 81, updated brochures, bulletin inserts, three direct mailings, handwritten thank yous and the promotional work of fifth-grade teacher Julie Shelby, who calls the local papers regularly to invited them to do stories when Mary, Queen of Peace has events. All are aimed at “letting people know what we have here is special,” Gerard said.

The mailers also read “students of all faiths welcome.”

“I like to reach out to the wider community because we’re an evangelization arm of the Church,” Gerard explained.

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Weinkauf has taught for 21 years, 10 of those at Mary, Queen of Peace and its predecessor.

“I like the ability to teach the faith, first and foremost,” Weinkauf said. “The parental support is amazing, and the kids are excited to be here. It’s the best!”

The school’s students have always done well academically. Last year, 30 percent tested in the 90th percentile on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills standardized tests, Gerard said, crediting the teaching staff.

“I look at the kids and the things they learn and share with you,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Next in the Beyond the beltway 7-part series:

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Category: Catholic Education