Friday, December 4, 2009

What works: St. Matthew's School increases enrollment by 30 percent

While most inner-city schools continue to struggle in a difficult economy, one school — St. Matthew’s in St. Paul — has been experiencing unprecedented growth.

Last year, enrollment at the school increased 30 percent. This year, despite the worst recession since World War II, enrollment continues to grow.

What’s the secret? It depends on whom you ask.

Like other urban schools, St. Matthew’s had been losing students at an average of 10 to 15 per year. When the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school’s enrollment dipped down below 140 students, principal Doug Lieser realized he needed to find a way to increase enrollment and financial support if the school was to survive.

The first thing Lieser did was conduct a survey asking parents why they chose St. Matthew’s for their children. Their answers surprised him.

How Catholic schools can replicate St. Matthew’s success

» “Be clear about who you are, what your message is,” principal Doug Lieser advises. “In our case, we did it through a survey. Other schools might do that in a different way. But be clear about it and make sure people know it.”

» “Make it a group effort,” Lieser said. St. Matthew’s owes its success to its pastor, alumni, donors, volunteers and a host of people acting together toward a common goal.

» “Put together a handful of people who are really committed to turning the school around and who have financial resources,” said Father Steve Adrian, pastor. “Then trust upon the good instincts and the energy of those folks.”

» “Get the word out as clearly as you can that everyone’s welcome,” he added.

» “I found that alumni will respond to the raising of dollars when you can say and you can demonstrate that because of their gift you were able to welcome ‘X’ number of new students into the school,” Father Adrian said.

» Expand your school’s mission to improving the community, Father Adrian added. In addition to educating children, St. Matthew provides a child care center, it’s a St. Mary’s Clinic and Loaves and Fishes site, the rectory is a Catholic Worker House, etc.

» “Take a look at your communications,” suggested St. Matthew’s alumnus Jerry Sexton. Make sure you’re communicating far and wide the good things that the school does.
“We have two mobile computer labs, we have a great lunch program, a great curriculum. . . . But that’s not why they’re choosing us,” Lieser said. “The three primary reasons that we found for our families choosing St. Matthew’s were that we were small, we were Catholic, and we provided a safe environment.”

Lieser took that information and designed a marketing campaign around it that included yard signs, newspaper advertisements and word of mouth.

Around the same time, alum Jerry Sexton worked with Lieser and Father Steve Adrian, pastor of St. Matthew’s, to form an Alumni and Friends group. Sexton used his experience in publishing to create a school newsletter for alumni, parents and donors.

‘Communication is key’

While every urban school is unique, one common problem many of them share is poor communication, Sexton said. “Commu­ni­ca­tion is key. . . . You raise money for tuition support and then you publish the fact that you have tuition support money.”

The newsletter is filled with success stories to show how St. Mat­thew’s is making a difference in students’ lives and in the community.

“You love God by loving your neighbor, and that is what we’re about at the school,” Sexton said.

Another reason St. Matthew’s has succeeded in recent years, according to Father Adrian, is its focus on serving families with limited financial means.

“There are just tons of people who never ever thought of a Catholic education because they assume they could never afford it,” he said. “So what we have done is rather successfully gotten the word out that money cannot be the issue, that we will find the money and you’re welcome in the school. And people come.”

Ninety percent of families with children at St. Matthew receive financial aid, Lieser said.

The school is able to provide scholarships through support from the archdiocese; FOCUS, a nonprofit organization Sexton helped found to raise funds for urban Catholic schools; and assistance from other organizations and donors.

Since it was formed in 2007, Alumni and Friends has raised an additional $270,000 for the school, Father Adrian said.

Being a ‘good Samaritan’

To those who might question why St. Matthew parish directs so much of its resources toward education, Father Adrian responds: “What we say to our donors is that the commitment on the part of St. Matthew’s is to seek to be the ‘good Samaritan’ on the banks of the Mississippi River, and part of that mission is the educating of kids.”

He points out that a majority of children attending St. Matthew’s are His­panic.

“We all know that the Catholic population in the United States is growing largely because of Spanish-speaking immigrants, and that it’s not too far down the line when those folks are going to be making up, if not the majority, at least a very significant chunk of what the church is, and it’s out of those folks that the future leadership is going to come,” Father Adrian said.

“If we don’t invest in the education of the kids of Latin background today, we’re missing the opportunity to provide new, fresh, well-prepared Catholic leadership a generation from now.”

All of St. Matthew’s efforts — the marketing campaign, the newsletter, the Alumni and Friends group, and the focus on mission — have shown impressive results.

In 2007, enrollment at St. Matthew’s was 136. This year, 192 students attend the school, two classes have waiting lists and the retention rate is 95 percent.

“The future of the school is strong,” said Father Adrian. “And it’s growing.” Catholic Spirit

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