Bishop Ricken shares update on strategic plan for Catholic schools

For first time in two decades, Catholic schools enrollment up across all regions of diocese

SHAWANO — Making phone calls, giving tours, meeting one-on-one with parents, explaining school choice vouchers, and using social media — especially using social media. Autumne Gee does everything she can to boost enrollment at Sacred Heart Catholic School.

“Our Facebook page is our big tool right now, particularly to reach parents in their mid-20s and 30s,” said Gee, Sacred Heart’s director of admissions and development. “We use it to keep people up-to-date on events, academic programs, student activities, just about everything going on at school.”

Bishop David Ricken visits with students from Sacred Heart School in Shawano Jan. 29 during an gathering with diocesan Catholic school leaders. The event was held to give an update on Catholic schools strategic planning introduced last January. (Bob Zyskowski | For The Compass)

Along with those efforts, Fr. Thomas Farrell, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, said support from the diocese has helped his parish school team feel supported. In addition, he said, Aleta Young, in the two years she has been principal, has brought “a new optimism” and belief in the value of Catholic schools. “Children know they are supported, loved and cared for,” said Fr. Farrell.

Altogether, it’s working.

In a rural community with a population under 10,000, Sacred Heart added 15 new students this school year to bring enrollment up to 110.

“It is working” was the cry, too, from Bishop David Ricken Jan. 29, as he and diocesan education officials were at Sacred Heart School to report on the Diocese of Green Bay’s “Disciples on the Way: Strategic and Mission Plan for Catholic Schools” one year after it was launched. “I am so happy to report today that we are making steady progress and seeing good fruit from our work,” Bishop Ricken said.

That’s because Sacred Heart wasn’t the only Catholic school in the diocese to show an enrollment gain, noted Peter Murphy, director of the diocesan Families and Schools of Discipleship Mission Team.

“For the first time in more than two decades, we have seen enrollment grow across all six regions of our diocese — a two percent increase diocesan-wide,” Murphy said. “A key factor driving this growth can be directly linked to visionary school leaders who are transforming their schools into ‘Schools of Discipleship,’ fostering a strong Catholic identity and actively engaging parents and families.”

The strategic plan was designed to align Catholic schools with the mission of the diocese, “Disciples on the Way,” Bishop Ricken said. “It is our road map to building Catholic schools that will overflow, families that will be engaged in their parishes, and communities that will be transformed by the love of God,” he explained.

List of achievements

The plan’s five key steps target students, staff, education, operations and funding, and, after one year, actions taken in those areas amounted to a lengthy list.

During the past 12 months:

  • All Catholic school faculty and staff attended a seminar on discipleship.
  • The diocesan Office of Catholic Schools added the position of associate superintendent for instruction and academic accountability to enhance academic excellence. Jane Schueller was hired for the position.
  • Summits to enhance and revitalize education offerings were held for teachers in world languages, art and music, and summits in additional subject areas are planned.
  • A small distance learning program was successfully piloted to allow students at a rural school to take algebra classes taught by a teacher at an urban school.
  • The WINGS blended learning model — which allows students to learn at their own pace, regardless of grade level — was piloted at several sites for K-6 grade, 7-8 grade and K-8 schools.
  • Catholic schools in the diocese received more than $650,000 in safety grants to enable schools to install security cameras, door locks and other devices to protect students and staff.
  • Workshops for new administrators are being held on a monthly basis to provide peer-to-peer support.
  • The Office of Catholic Schools added two additional positions. Lori Paul, the new advancement director, is developing a marketing and communications plan to empower Catholic schools to tell their stories. Dean Gerondale, the new financial planning director, is developing a standard budget platform and a global purchasing process to lower costs and help schools bolster their financial viability.

Additional actions anticipated in the coming months include:

  • More opportunities for spiritual formation, retreats liturgies and prayer services for faculty and staff are planned.
  • Training for school staffs, pastoral leaders and spiritual caregivers to help care for individuals who have suffered sexual or other types of abuse in childhood.
  • A Catholic School Leadership Development Program for principals, aspiring principals and teacher leaders is being developed in cooperation with CatholicLink in Green Bay and St. Norbert College in De Pere.
  • Silver Lake College in Manitowoc is investigating future locations for their master’s degree programs to better serve Catholic school personnel.

Bishop Ricken said that funding for Catholic schools is a key component of the diocesan capital campaign “one by One,” which is currently in the pilot stage.

“Change takes capital,” Bishop Ricken declared. “We are committed to helping our Catholic schools to continue to move forward on this plan for growth and fulfillment of the mission by raising a sizable amount of money to mobilize the mission even more.

“My hope,” Bishop Ricken added, “is that these initiatives will, in a short amount of time, re-engage families in the life of the parishes and help them and all of us to introduce and re-introduce others the Jesus.”

Many to benefit

Todd Blahnik, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Green Bay Diocese, noted that one of the benefits of Catholic schools is the support parents get from both the school and the school community.

“In this day and age, families need extra support,” Blahnik told The Compass. “Parents are the primary educators of their children, and we’re here to support them in forming them not only as Catholics but to be successful citizens in our great democracy.”

In return for supporting Catholic schools, he said, communities get well-formed citizens who are trained in critical thinking, have a solid foundation of values, know right from wrong, and have the ability to work collaboratively.

Blahnik pointed to a study by the CARA organization at Georgetown University that found that children who attended Catholic schools were more likely to be active Catholics as adults.

“The greatest benefit of our strategic plan and mission for Catholic schools is that we are building for the future of our parishes,” he said.