At Saint Olaf Catholic School in Bountiful, Utah, we recently revisited what it means for families to be part of one or more Catholic Schools, part of an entire educational system. Our intent through this examination was improved admission and retention under the assumption that being part of a system should offer advantages to families.

Moving from Focusing on Our School to the Right Fit within the System

We began with family surveys, asking for experience descriptors – both in terms of our school and system-wide. People surveyed repeatedly picked the words “community” and “family”. We believe it’s because they have found belonging. There is a subtle yet hugely significant difference between simply joining a community and truly belonging to one. Between attending a school versus investing in it for a lifetime by offering financial support, resources, service hours, etc. As schools who rely on this support, helping families find belonging is critical.

New to admissions and advancement, with a newer administration team, it quickly became evident to me that there was a lack of cooperation between our Catholic schools in terms of admissions and enrollment. This lack of cohesion puzzled me, especially given that a key solution to retention is belonging and fit – and our schools are all located near each other. Working better together means understanding and accurately presenting both our shared commonalities (high level academics, faith, and communities of belonging), and the differences between individual schools (vision, mission, charism). Long-term system success and sustainability depend on sharing families and students within the network through best fit.

As we identified the importance of fit beyond our own school but within the Catholic network, our admission interviews changed. Prospective families now hear of our commitment to finding the right fit – and not necessarily at our school. We intentionally seek to understand each family’s goals, while sharing our expectations of them in return. Families better understand that individual Catholic schools have unique visions, missions, and charisms. In our interviews, both parties – the family and the admissions representative – must concur that our school makes a great fit. If not, what is missing or needed, along with where it might exist, concludes the interview.

Belonging and Fit in an Inclusive System

Belonging and fit sustain our entire system and is the reason Catholic Education exists. We have a rich and inclusive history. Our original charism to serve those in most need, endures. Saint Olaf serves families from varied faith and ethnic backgrounds, with 40% of our population identifying as noncatholic and 38% identifying as non-white. In a predominantly white and Latter Day Saints (LDS) faith community, this is noteworthy. Our charism dictates education is provided to any seeking it. Approximately 50% of our families receive tuition assistance/forgiveness.

Much like International schools, flexibility, creativity, and an awareness of cultural differences have led to several successful unifying innovations in our community. For example, students are paired with Mass buddies with the older learners serving as mentors and students stay in contact for years. They are paired based on interest, languages spoken, or other reasons. To help our non-Catholic families learn Mass, we began providing a monthly Family Mass led by students, as well as, included within the missal, a prayer and response card in English and Latin.

We are also developing a parent buddy system, given success with the student buddy program. New Spanish speaking families are paired with a native speaking parent who can answer questions, assist with forms, and help navigate online learning and communication systems. A Spanish speaking parent is also assisting our third party tuition forgiveness program to fix poorly translated financial forms. Wading through many curricula when changing ELA programs, ensures better material, including literature that reflects stories and people from varied backgrounds and cultures. These small changes make a big difference in creating belonging.

Looking at Recruitment in the Big Picture from Pre-K to 12th

As part of a system, we aren’t only recruiting for this school year, or for Saint Olaf Catholic
School, but for Pre-K to 12th grade year after year. We have discovered that families need frequent reminders that student success is highest when families remain through graduation. Catholic Schools annually outperform other schools on district and state test scores. This success is not solely the work of the current school, but the dedication of all attended schools. With parental focus on college testing and preparation done in high school, the foundational work of lower grades is often under-appreciated. A system-wide area for growth is improving communication of this information PreK-12th grade.

For retention purposes, we have to effectively relay the hows and whys of the solid educational foundation we build. We envision a shared marketing director who eliminates individual school competition while highlighting unique qualities. We imagine families free from the push and pull of aggressive recruitment for limited students. Instead, families explore each school’s mission and vision to match with their own educational values.

While we aren’t there yet, we continue to make strides. This year our school was able to request and see implemented a system-wide marketing campaign using multiple media platforms. We also recommended, based on our school’s success, a system-wide social media enrollment platform that was ultimately selected. Thanks to feedback surveys, monthly Diocesan-wide advancement meetings are slowly growing into think tank sessions where ideas are shared, guest speakers present, and camaraderie grows. These ideas can work for any system; private schools within one city, charter schools with a shared vision, and even international schools.

How does any system of schools do better at helping each other and families? We believe it
begins with a change in the way we think about recruitment, enrollment, and loss. Sister schools must agree that belonging for families is necessary, and ultimately benefits all. Our goal is for enrollment losses to become students switching to sister schools for best fit, retaining families with a whole new definition. Belonging is such a powerful human experience that when combined with excellent academics centered in diverse faith communities, students flourish and families stay, tethered for a lifetime.

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