Diocesan Schools Build Relationships to Increase Enrollment

| February 13, 2017

By Renée K. Gadoua

Maria Smith spent Halloween at All Saints Catholic School’s parade and party.

“This is a huge day for them,” Smith said. “They walk around the block and parents are lined up to take their pictures. You’d think it was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It’s a lot of fun.”

Smith’s children, Rocco and Francesca, are in 2nd and 1st grade at All Saint in Endicott. When the family moved from New Jersey to Endicott last year, Maria and Peter Smith immediately enrolled them in the Catholic school.

Smith soon learned the school’s enrollment was stagnant, and she wanted to do something about it. She read about the Parent Ambassador Program, developed by the Archdiocese of Chicago and effective in increasing enrollment. Numerous dioce­san school systems have adopted the program, which stresses parent engagement in the recruitment and retention process. Smith suggested All Saints give it a try.

All Saints’ Parent Ambassador Program is one of several ways diocesan schools are reaching out to build enrollment and develop relationships with the community. The efforts take different forms, but share the goal of raising Catholic schools’ visibility, championing their educational benefits and sharing their values.

Six parents serve as parent ambassadors at All Saints. This year they’re mentoring about 15 families new to the school. Some serve as tour guides, accompanying the family and the principal, Angela Tierno Sherwood. After a tour, the families meet privately with an ambassador.

“We’re selling our schools, so it’s good for them to talk to someone who has bought into it and why they’ve bought into it,” Sherwood said.

The ambassadors also do outreach to the six parishes near All Saints. “Since our school is not affiliated directly with a parish, we feel it’s important for parishes to know what we’re doing,” Sherwood explained. A pastor appreciation breakfast in the fall aimed to build relationships, as well.

In August, Smith hosted a breakfast for new families. “It was great for the moms to get to know us,” she said. “Knowing our experience last year as new parents, it’s nice to have a friendly face, or four or five friendly faces, when they walked in on the first day.”

The ambassador program already has helped Sherwood. “These are people I know are on the same page as I am,” she said. “They are so totally invested in the school. It’s invaluable to me. It’s good for parents to be invested, so I can invest my time in education.”

Even with enthusiastic boosters, student retention is sometimes out of the school’s control. “One of biggest factors in this area is loss of families due to employment,” Sherwood said. “Over the last year, we had several families take jobs down south and they had multiple children. That is one of our biggest challenges.”

For now, the ambassadors don’t have a specific goal for increasing enrollment. “We want to get the program really solidified and put metrics to it later,” she said. “I hope it does what we want it to.”


St. Rose of Lima in North Syracuse isn’t facing an enrollment problem; with 278 students, the classrooms are full. But that hasn’t stopped the school from working to connect with the parish and the community.

“Our personality is we’re just a big family, and we want people to have that feeling when they walk in the door,” said Principal Mary Crysler.

The school extends that family philosophy in several ways. For example, St. Rose has invited staff from the local public school and from other Catholic schools to hold joint professional development programs.

To remind people that the school and church belong to the same family, parishioners are invited to concerts and other events. The school also invites prayer requests from parishioners. In one instance, a woman asked the school to pray for her ailing mother, and the students made cards for her. The woman died soon after receiving the cards, but her daughter told the students that her mother was touched by their concern.

“We want the kids to grow up and give back without expecting anything in return,” Crysler said. “We really want people to be part of who we are and know we’re not just looking for people to support us financially. We want them to understand there’s more to us.”


St. Mary’s Academy in Baldwinsville opened the school year with 103 students, its lowest enrollment ever. Since then, they’ve picked up a few students. But because the Baldwinsville public school added full-day Kindergarten a few years ago and because Upstate employment opportunities are unreliable, principal Renae Henderson expects enrollment challenges to continue.

The school’s marketing committee decided to reach out to other Christian churches in the area. The group sent 18 invitations, and about five pastors attended a luncheon.

“We always tell them it goes beyond Catholic teaching,” Henderson said. “We teach them morals and values, which are important to any religion. Being a good person and doing service and having manners are values you can’t teach from a textbook. It’s not just a Catholic thing. It’s being a good person and learning how to make the world a better place just by being in it.”

Henderson said the school is likely to reach out again to leaders of other churches. “It’s not one and done,” she said. “We want to build a relationship.”

She hopes the school can again enroll 140 students. “We’re doing everything we’re able to do within the constraints of our budget,” Henderson said. “We can do all the advertising we want, but the number one advertising for this business is word of mouth. That can make or break us.”

Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.

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Category: Catholic Identity, Featured, Quality, Stewardship

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