Monday, October 24, 2011

Catholic high schools in West Michigan strategize ways to stay viable

GRAND RAPIDS (MLIVE) — In June 2009, Grand Rapids Catholic Secondary Schools recognized it had to address some issues if its high schools were going to serve families and the community for another 100 years.
“Our top priority was getting our house in order,” said Tom Maj, president of Catholic Secondary Schools. “We had to get out of debt and stop deficit spending. Had we done nothing, the high schools (Catholic Central and West Catholic) wouldn’t be here today.”
Catholic schools nationwide are facing the challenges of rising expenses, shrinking enrollments and possible closure, and Grand Rapids is no different than other urban Catholic school districts.
Maj said a three-year management plan started in 2009 has the system on track to be back in the black by the end of this school year — emerging from a debt in excess of $2 million.
“There is a lot of history in Grand Rapids that coincides with the Catholic Church and its schools, and we want to continue to be around to add to that history,” Maj said.
Catholic Central, 319 Sheldon Blvd. SE, was established in 1906. West Catholic, 1801 Bristol Ave. NW, opened in 1962 to address overcrowding.
In August 2010, leaders adopted a vision and 12 strategic priorities, including student academic success, financial viability, fundraising and increasing enrollment.
Enrollment has exceeded projections but still is declining. At Catholic Central, enrollment is at 677 students, down 51 students from last year. West Catholic has 507 students, 34 fewer than last year.
This school year, officials made some key moves aimed at growing its enrollment, increasing fundraising, re-engaging alumni and bettering communication. In fact, communication seemed to be a major issue for some people last year, when administrative and other changes were occurring in an attempt to make the schools more efficient.
There now are admissions directors assigned to each school who are focused on retaining and recruiting families, a communication director for the system and part-time alumni directors to bolster relations.
There also is support from families — who sacrifice to pay the $7,855 in tuition in a tough economy when they could send their students to other schools also known for rigorous academics, including Grand Rapids City High, Forest Hills and East Grand Rapids high schools.
“We have the choice, and we are making it because the difference is a Catholic education is faith-filled and it’s woven throughout the day, not just in a 50-minute religion class,” said Nancy Moran, of Cascade Township, whose son is a sophomore at Catholic Central. “The schools seem to be on the right track with the changes made the last few years.”
Moran, whose family also has lived in East Grand Rapids, said they have two other children who graduated from Catholic Central. She said their education extends beyond high-quality academics to a sense of faith and community that will serve them well in their adult life.
Catholic leaders attending a conference this month regarding their elementary and secondary schools said the key to their survival is promoting such a mission.
“We not only care what students know, but we care who they become,” Maj said. “It is the very foundation of the Catholic Church. It’s not just about teaching subjects, but how to use what you learn to serve the community.”
That appeals to many Catholic families, but some say they just can’t make the financial commitment and also save for costly college tuition. With parish support, the price drops $885 to $6,970. Catholic Secondary Schools also provides tuition assistance, and scholarships are available through the bishop. Thirty percent of Catholic high school students receive tuition assistance. But for families with more than one child, it still can be a challenge.
Maj said officials know that’s an issue and want to raise more money to keep costs down and to provide tuition help to even more families in need.
“Recessionary times have hit us all hard,” said Diane Coddington, who lives in the Coopersville school district and has a senior, junior and freshman at West Catholic. “Our son will matriculate on to college next year. We feel the academic rigors and challenges of our investment have served us well, allowing him to attend any college in the nation.”
With the schools’ social commitment as their guide, she said she also is proud her son has been able to serve the community, too.
Call Coddington, 18, volunteers at Saint Mary’s Clinica Santa Maria. He said after he completed all the Spanish courses offered at school, his Spanish teacher encouraged him to get out into the community to both serve and learn the language more.
“The religion class is one thing, but the other half is inspiration from teachers,” said Call, who said he has benefited from the student-to-teacher ratio. “Every lesson pertains to life.”

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