Four public school students from one family recently enrolled at St. Gerald Elementary School, scoring a half-price discount for their first year at the private school.
St. Gerald administrators are equally thrilled, adding numbers by offering the tuition assistance.
It’s one tactic that Omaha Archdiocese officials, teachers and parents are employing to reach more families and invite them to consider Catholic education.
Catholic grade schools are starting to actively recruit prospective students with a two-pronged approach — expanding the transfer-student tuition-assistance program and assembling teams of parents to do outreach.
Systematic marketing, in general, is new territory for the elementary schools, which typically have relied on family tradition to bring in students.
Archdiocese student enrollment has been declining since it hit a 20-year peak in 1998, from 22,080 that year to 19,277 in 2015. Newly hired marketing and development coordinators are focused on adding students and stressing the tight-knit community feeling of Catholic schools to prevent schools from closing. Five metro-area
Catholic grade schools were shuttered in the past 10 years.
“It’s not a secret that enrollment is going down and our community wants to see us succeed and they want to see full classes,” said St. Pius X-St. Leo Elementary School development coordinator Kim Ramsey. “We have competition with the public schools.”
Many schools for years have held open houses, tours and kindergarten roundups around Catholic Schools Week, which began Sunday.
Schools are turning already-devoted moms and dads into “parent ambassadors,” a strategy modeled after the archdioceses in Chicago and Sioux City.
Chicago officials told Omaha Superintendent Patrick Slattery that they haven’t seen large enrollment gains yet but that they’ve curbed losses —which they directly attribute to parent ambassador efforts.
The Omaha Archdiocese held training events this school year for officials and parent ambassadors. While some schools create their own website and fliers, others can use the Archdiocese’s toolkit with the system-wide “Awaken Greatness” brand and customize the materials to best promote their school.
Ambassadors can figure out specific tactics, such as thank-you notes or pancake breakfasts, to market their unique strengths and personalities, said Tricia Olsen, the marketing and public relations officer for the Archdiocese.
“This grass-roots outreach effort has become a new trend that’s working in the last five years,” Olsen said. “Parents are the best resources for telling a story about a school.”
At St. Pius X-St. Leo, off 69th and Blondo Streets, Ramsey is dividing parents into six committees to focus on various areas, including local day cares, social media and families in the two parishes’ baptism classes.
For example, families of newly baptized babies receive student-made rosaries plus congratulations and birthday cards from the school.
Ambassadors might later give a tiny T-shirt that says “Future St. Pius X-St. Leo student,” Ramsey said.
Families plan to put up yard signs in the spring, and one parent ambassador has visited nearly 10 child cares in the last few months, handing out fliers with school information.
Ramsey said there are about 45 openings in the 688-student school.
A perk for transfer or new students will be the welcome tuition grants, which were piloted in nine schools last fall, garnering 41 new students.
Up to 20 schools will offer the assistance grants next school year and pitch the discount to prospective families in a few weeks, earlier than last year when it was offered in July.
The grants give a $1,000 discount the first year and $500 the next. The average Archdiocese grade school tuition is $2,400 per year for the first student in a family.
Twelve students accepted the grants this past fall to attend St. Gerald, at 78th and Lakeview Streets in Ralston.
“It gives them that final push to say, ‘This is the year we do this,’ ” Principal Michaela Goerke said.
Currently 378 students attend St. Gerald, but the goal is 400, Goerke said. The school recently announced new pre-kindergarten classes for the fall, which could add 24 students if full.
St. Gerald hosted an open house to kick off Catholic Schools Week and distribute information and school swag to potential families — plus a free pancake breakfast. Parents and students handed out St. Gerald-branded bags for the Ralston Fourth of July parade, and the school has a bus bench advertisement on 84th Street.
“Active recruiting is necessary as you are drawing on families from all over the city and surrounding areas,” Goerke said. “When you can walk down the street and send your child at no cost to a public school, you must have something special happening in your building to keep them from taking that walk down the street.”
Lisa Dempsey was hired in September at St. Bernard Elementary School as the marketing and recruitment director with the main goal of increasing enrollment.
She created business cards for eight parent ambassadors, teachers and administrators to pass out whenever they talk about St. Bernard, off 65th Street and Military Avenue.
One mother told Dempsey that she gave an interested parent a business card when talking about St. Bernard, which was much easier than scrambling for a piece of paper or a digital note on a phone.
“This was professional,” Dempsey said. “It’s such a small thing, but the impact is huge.”
The school is also talking at the church during a four-week “campaign,” telling parishioners ways to break down often-heard misconceptions about Catholic schools, such as private education being inaccessible to poorer families.
“We make it very affordable,” Dempsey said. “One-third of our families receive some sort of tuition assistance. We will find a way to make it work.”
Dempsey said offering the discount earlier in the year will help spur conversation among those considering private schools. St. Bernard is hosting a monthly talk for prospective families, first about the grants in March, then on faith and service in April and finally, enrolling students in May.
“As families start to think about the upcoming school year, if they’re thinking about making a change, the sooner they can learn about opportunities to help make that happen, the better,” she said.
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