Heidi Altman is principal of St. Mary's Catholic School in Taylor, Texas.
Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?
St. Mary’s is diocesan.
Founded in 1876 by Dominican Sisters, we were firmly established in our parish at St. Mary of the Assumption and in the diocese of Austin and I felt strongly that we needed to return to our classical roots while still fulfilling our service to the Church and the Bishop. When we began our return to classical, I had not found another classical Catholic school in Texas that was still a part of its diocese—mostly because becoming classical was too difficult under the restraints and red tape of the centralized Diocesan School Offices and the state accreditation for Catholic schools.
I figured we just needed to just fix that from “within”—so we did! I had a wonderfully supportive Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Misty Poe, and Bishop, Joe Vasquez, who both agreed that we would find a way to move forward with the classical model and even open those doors for other schools in the diocese. My Dean of Curriculum, Dr. DeAnn Stuart, started to work at aligning the Texas state education standards with our new classical education standards, and they were accepted by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops Education Department.
So—short story long—we are classical, Catholic, STILL diocesan, and STILL a parish school of St. Mary of the Assumption here in Taylor!
And now, four other schools in our Diocese are transitioning to the classical model, too!
What grades does your school serve?
PK3 - 10th, and opening to 11th in the Fall of 2021.
We were PK3-8th grades, but opened the first Chesterton Academy in Texas (and the southern U.S.) this year, in Fall of 2020, to serve the needs of our families and the diocese. The Chesterton Network model is a perfect fit for our classical program, and we LOVE the joyful and authentically Catholic curriculum they offer.
What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish?
Our official mission is to “further God’s Kingdom through faith, academics and service,”...but it is so hard to completely express what we are called to do in just one sentence!
My vision for St. Mary’s is to serve God, as a ministry of His Church, and be a light to our surrounding communities; to actively evangelize and form faithful, virtuous young men and women who will seek Truth, Beauty, and Goodness throughout their lives on earth, who will serve the Lord, and build strong families, and ultimately find eternal happiness for themselves as well as others.
The fact that so many families are raising their own children (and grandchildren) here in the St. Mary’s community proves that we are succeeding in this vision, but there is so much more we must do to support the family as the world seeks to tear it apart.
I am finding that more and more parents truly need a partner that will teach them the beauty of our Faith and how to live it out in the domestic church (their homes). As a school, we are constantly seeking even more ways to provide support to parents and model to them how to raise their children counter-culturally and how to be strong in the truths of their faith. Strong families produce strong children, and strong children grow up to establish more strong families!
Ultimately, too, we seek to foster vocations to religious life—that is a very good “litmus test” of how well we are forming our students!
How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area?
Our school is rooted in 125 years of Dominican-inspired Catholic Identity and the Catholic intellectual tradition, which we have recently reclaimed! We are joyful, and real, and sometimes messy, but we are a community of sinners seeking fervently to become saints!
According to the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, “In a Catholic school, everyone should be aware of the Living presence of Jesus the ‘Master,’ who, today as always, is with us in our journey through life as the one genuine Teacher,’ the perfect man in whom all human values find their fullest perfection.” Therefore, each school day at St. Mary’s Catholic School begins with the celebration of the Mass and/or Morning Prayer service so that every student and faculty member begins the day with the Teacher in order to learn from Him and, with the grace given through the Eucharist, model their lives after Him.
We seek to provide a fully integrated and cohesive curriculum that is ordered chronologically through the grade levels and seeks TRUTH, BEAUTY AND GOODNESS in all that we encounter—because that will ultimately lead us to know and build a relationship with the Divine and personally experience the saving Grace of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
How often do your students attend Mass?
Our PK3-8th graders attend Mass at least twice weekly and our high school students attend Mass daily (on Mondays, if we don’t have a priest to offer Mass on campus, then the high school students are led in prayer service to include Gospel reflection and the Liturgy of the Hours).
How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?
Daily prayer, the full complement of the sacraments, and a liturgical life planted in the seasons of the Church!
Of course, our classical curriculum is centered on a core humanities block that integrates theology/religion + history + literature. Our faith is not just a class—it is studied and applied to all truths in all subjects!
We engage in:
Advent and Lenten school-wide reconciliation services (with opportunity for reconciliation upon appointment at any time with our pastor),
Stations of the Cross led by students and our priest each Friday during Lent (our parishioners and families are all invited!)
School-wide adoration on First Fridays (our parishioners and families are all invited!)
Feast Day celebrations
Regular study/integration of the lives of the Saints through our House System, Virtue of the Month program, and a whole week of celebrating All Saints Day!
May Crowning of Mary—a beautiful school/community wide Mass and then we crown ALL the Mary statues on the entire campus!
Feast of the Assumption of Mary—as this is our parish and school feast day, we go “all out!” We have a big potluck picnic on the church/school grounds after Mass on Sunday, complete with a band and dancing!
Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?
Absolutely! Our curriculum, PK3 (pre-kindergarten 3 year olds) through 12th grades is beautifully integrated with a core humanities sequence to include history, literature, and Catholic theology/religion. In the pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, all our students receive Art, Music, PE, and foreign language every year through the 12th grade.
Our classical education curriculum meets all basic state requirements, but specifically realigns them, enriches them, and integrates them cohesively into a beautiful tapestry that reflects the best that has ever been thought, written, spoken, or done.
The authentic purpose of education and of life—and the search for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—drives every decision and lesson. Lesson plan objectives are based not on what “students will be able to do”, but rather, on what “truth students will behold.” Students are constantly reminded that we are training for heaven.
What is your school’s enrollment?
At the moment, we have 194 students (7 at the HIgh School and 187 in grades PK3-8th grades). This is down slightly (about 20 students) from last year due to COVID, but we are seeing many of those families returning for next year.
Our ultimate goal is to have between 250-300 in the Lower School (PK3-8th) and 100-150 in the High School. We already have waiting lists at three grade levels for next year.
Has enrollment been steady in recent years?
Enrollment has made steady gains during the past five years. When I became principal in the summer of 2016, I was handed an enrollment roster of about 50 students and a decree by our bishop that the school would be closing after that year if things didn’t change. By opening day in August 2016, we had 120 students. We had the highest percent enrollment growth in the diocese for the next three years in a row. We transitioned to the classical model the summer before my third year as principal, in 2018-2019.
Another fun fact: after seven straight years of declining enrollment before I became principal, we surpassed our 20-year enrollment high by my fourth year (2019-2020). God brings forth miracles when you trust Him and center all your efforts on His will!
What is your school’s tuition? Do you offer a sibling discount? If you offer financial aid, how many families receive it and what is the average grant?
Our tuition is $6,100 for pre-K, $5,600 for K-8th, and $7,750 for high school.
As a pro-life Catholic school, we are committed to keeping tuition low for our families while providing an exemplary education program for all. A Catholic school education is the best investment for a child’s faith formation, academics, and happiness, and we are glad to share in the financial sacrifice by providing tuition discounts, engaging with our families in rigorous fundraising, offering needs-based tuition scholarships, and partnering with St. Mary of the Assumption parish to fund our program. Our tuition rates reflect this shared sacrifice, and provide a means for all families to access an education centered on faith, virtue, wisdom, and apostleship!
While keeping our tuition low (we are the 4th lowest in the diocese), we also offer deep discounts for siblings, and robust financial aid on a needs-basis. We generally provide aid to 30-40% of our families, and the average grant is $1,000.
How involved are parents in the life of your school?
Our parents are very involved, and constantly invited in as primary educators of their children. We have daily Mass, so our parents are always invited to attend and their children can sit with them.
We have a robust volunteer program for day-to-day functions as well as our annual fundraising events. We also engage parents in Field Days, Christmas and spring musicals, All Saints Day, Feast Days (including a huge event on our parish/school feast day of the Assumption of Mary), sports events, field trips, House games, Pep Rallies, student retreats, and campouts.
As we began our transition to classical methodologies, we also created a parent education program called “A Classical Night Out,” during which parents come to campus for a cocktail hour and a presentation while kids enjoy a classic movie (i.e. Sound of Music) and popcorn.
We work very hard to establish school spirit and a familial culture centered around the school. Parents who tour our campus for the first time often comment on how welcoming we are, and that they walk away already feeling like they are family.
Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?
I am satisfied with our teachers, but we are always striving to learn and improve our methodologies. I was very blessed (and impressed) that all my teachers three years ago jumped in with both feet on this classical journey. No one resisted! Since then we have had some teacher turnover, and I am always seeking new teachers who are already skilled in teaching classically or at least have experienced instruction academically in the liberal arts tradition so they can add to the classical conversations and work with our other teachers who have just begun this journey.
I am pleased that my teachers are always willing to improve in their strategies and learn more about this model of teaching!
Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?
Yes! We send out a survey in the spring each year that asks the following questions:
How likely, on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most likely), are you to recommend St. Mary’s Catholic School to others?
Why did you respond the way you did to the above question?
We also sometimes add a third question, such as when we were discerning the opening of a high school.
Our ratings have been consistently high, with well over 90% of our families rating us as a “9” or “10”
Example of the comments we receive are:
"The foundation my child is receiving based on faith and values, and how prayer and God are intertwined in every subject and all daily routines”
“Caring for the mind and heart of each child”
“Personal attention and individualized instruction”
“Rooted in Christ!”
“Love and peaceful feeling on campus”
“We are a stronger family from being partners with St. Mary’s”
“Love the classical education!”
“A true family with shared values and priorities”
“The staff have a sincere faith and LOVE for the students!”
What are you doing to intentionally build and strengthen your school community? How do you communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of your community connect with each other?
We serve 26—yes, 26!—different zip codes in an area that covers a 45-mile radius. Therefore, we do intentionally build and strengthen our school community in order to ensure that the family who travels 45 miles to school is just as connected as the family who walks their child across the street to our campus. Please see my answer above regarding ways we strengthen school community.
We communicate weekly through our school-wide Ram Report (which also is sent to our alumni and donors and is posted on our website), as well as through teacher weekly newsletters sent to parents about the upcoming week’s instructional content and school events.
Our parent/student calendar is posted on our website, and parents can digitally sync it with their personal calendars to stay updated on events, as well. As the principal, I include notes and information to the parents in our Ram Reports and also send out notes (emails and text alerts) directly to our parents through our RenWeb Student Information System.
Our very active youth ministry at the parish, St. Mary of the Assumption, has brought yet another wonderful opportunity with which to form community as well as strengthen families. Our Directors of Faith Formation/Religious Education are also parents of children at the school, and together we are embarking on a concerted effort to actively involve whole families in growing in their faith. The programs they have begun—Fraternus and Fidelis (for 6th-10th grade young men and women)—are outstanding! Parents, parishioners, and community members are invited in as adult mentors for the groups, and our school students (the majority of them attend on Wednesday nights) interact with the parish students together. The events are family oriented, and involve dads and sons and mothers and daughters in campouts, retreats, and game/movie nights.
We are extending even more of these same activities to the school, which further offers opportunities to form community.
How do you utilize volunteers in the operation of your school? What has worked well in making volunteers effective?
Pre-COVID, of course, our school had regular volunteers on a daily basis: lunch room monitors, work room helpers, car line assistants, P.E. volunteers, volunteer coaches for athletics, substitute teachers, office/nurse helpers, library helpers, and helpers for activities in the classroom. These volunteers were vital to our operations, and helped to build community. Though most of that had to pause for a bit due to the pandemic, we hope to reinvigorate that practice next year.
We have a Substitute/Volunteer Handbook, which I review with each volunteer prior to them joining our campus. This helps to head off possible issues such as dress code, confidentiality while working on campus, and general work procedures/standards of conduct that we expect throughout the school day.
What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.
Formed.org (Augustine Institute), Word on Fire, Sophia Institute (we use their Spirit of Truth for our religion program, which is beautiful and offers tons of great resources for families), Loyola Press (also a great resource for parents/families), posting links to youtube videos/programs from Fr. Mike Schmitz, Bishop Barron. I also use the resources from ICLE, Chesterton network, and Classical Academic Press that will help to educate parents on classical methodologies.
In addition, our outstanding parish youth ministry programs that integrate closely with the school—Fraternus and Fidelis—help us to truly build a community of faithful families, evangelizing the parents AND the students AND the parishioners all together (see more about this above).
What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?
Note our parent surveys. Please see answer above.
What marketing efforts (events, social media, print advertising, digital advertising, etc.) have you found most effective in sharing your school’s story with the local community?
Word of mouth (our BIGGEST seller). Happy parents are happy to spread the good word to others! We also harness the power of a connective and influential network. I regularly speak at local civic clubs (Rotary, Lions Club, Optimist Club) to keep them updated on all the great things happening in our school. They need to be proud of what their local private school offers, and they need to know that we exist to serve our wonderful town and help grow great citizens—and then I hope they TALK about us at every chance they get!
We ask pastors of our surrounding parishes that we serve to allow us to give pulpit talks and hand out flyers and information at Masses. We also advertise in their parish bulletins.
YARD SIGNS. We give EVERYONE a yard sign to proudly display in their yard (we literally hand them out at car line dismissal: “Here’s your kid,...and here’s your sign! Have a good evening!”). Because we serve such a large geographical area, we can’t possibly put up billboards or large signs in every town or neighborhood. So the yard signs do the job for us!
Facebook, Instagram, billboards, large signs placed in front of area churches or businesses, and our local Taylor/Hutto newspaper.
Articles and ads in the Catholic Spirit—our diocese of Austin monthly publication that is sent to every registered parishioner in the diocese.
Our diocesan Catholic Schools Office also pushes out posts/stories about our school to all the families in the diocese.
How do you recruit new families to your school? What resources do you use to tell your school’s story and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what your school offers that others don’t?
We share our stories using the marketing opportunities above. We also try to regularly post to classically-minded parent groups, such as the Austin Classical Project and homeschool networks.
Parents are looking for something different from the public schools because they are starting to see that model is failing students and becoming more and more subject to an “agenda” rather than what is good educationally. Parents are looking for something different than the general Catholic school because some Catholic schools have found themselves implementing the public school curriculum with very little else to differentiate themselves from that model of education.
What these parents are telling us—what years of declining enrollment is telling us—is that many of us have lost our way, and each of us must find our way back to becoming AUTHENTICALLY CATHOLIC in our education practices. For each Catholic school, this will look different. My Dominican school will be different than a Catholic school founded by the Salesian Sisters, which will be different from one founded by the Jesuits. We must all proudly reclaim our heritage, and reclaim our Catholic intellectual traditions.
How much have you needed to sell your community of parents on the value of the education and formation your school offers? How many parents seek out what your school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?
We really attract and serve two groups of parents. There are those who (1) have been connected to us generationally or have heard that we are a great school in which to raise great kids, and (2) are intentionally seeking an authentically Catholic and preferably classical model of instruction.
The first group loves our school because of the beautiful community, and trusts that the curriculum we use and formation model we have in place is good for their child—no matter what that instructional methodology is called. They don’t need to be “convinced” of a particular methodology, but we do try our best to educate them on what we are doing, how it is different than a progressive public school model, and why it is inherently better for their child.
The second group already knows what it is looking for. Our school is continually growing in our classical methodologies, and we grow further as we involve these parents in discussions about what they are seeking. We cannot be all things to all people (and there is a spectrum of philosophies even within the classically-minded group), but we can be true to our mission and seek to serve those whom God brings us in the absolute best way.
Messaging that speaks to parents is simple—you are the primary educators of your children, and we are your partners. We will love your children as beautiful, beloved creations of God, and we will know them, educate them, and form them so they can become who God made them to be—SAINTS!
How do you determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your application process? What shared values do current families expect you to protect as you add new families to your school community?
We have recently begun requiring all new families who are moving through the application process to read “An Introduction to Classical Education” and “The Lost Tools of Learning” to begin first conversations about our model and our mission. This allows us all to begin speaking the same language, and provides me with insight on where the parents will need support.
Our application process requires review of academic and behavioral records, a student interview, student placement testing, and parent interviews.
Current families expect me to protect the common vision and goals of our school—to maintain a community of parents who understand they are the primary educators of their children, and thus allow us to be true partners in that education. This can be a challenge sometimes, as our parents come with a variety of beliefs and expectations, but that is our mission as a ministry.
I have found that as long as we are truthful and clear in our conversations with parents about our mission, our model, and our expectations of students and families, then it is easy to determine whether or not parents are the right “fit” for our school. Though I believe ALL families CAN be the right “fit,” I know that not every family is ready to engage fully in the model of education that we offer.
What do you look for when hiring teachers?
If possible, I look for classical experience, faithful Catholics who are well-formed in catechesis (this makes it easier to integrate the theology/religion into the other disciplines), master’s degrees or beyond (we currently have 20 post-grad degrees on our faculty), and degrees in the liberal arts, such as in classics or great books, etc.
But MOST important is a collaborative, passionate, faith-filled lifelong learner who is seeking continuous growth in their vocation and in their faith life.
As I bring more teachers onto our faculty who have classical experience, they can enrich discussions and inform practice, even for those who are still learning the classical methodologies. I specifically hired our dean of curriculum because she was classically trained, taught classically, is a master teacher, and a great coach for our other teachers.
However, all teachers need support, and all teachers should grow continually in their craft. Therefore it is never assumed that I just hire and stick them in a classroom and call it “good,” no matter what their experience. A professional is constantly seeking to perfect their methods and pedagogy—I am here to support that in all my teachers (and that is just as important as making a good hire in the first place).
How do you recruit new teachers? What resources do you use to share your school’s story and connect with qualified teachers outside of your school community? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what your school offers that others don’t?
We post on our diocese website, on ICLE, Chesterton Network, Catholic Jobs, and try also to reach out to great colleges known for outstanding liberal arts programs and Catholicity. I love that I meet on-fire faithful young people who want to serve in the ministry of teaching in the classical tradition, and who are hungry for a community that is also on fire. People who want to serve God are also usually hungry to actively BUILD His kingdom. As a school—and now a parish—that are both growing in this mission, we are attractive to those applicants.
How do you determine whether a teacher you are considering hiring will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect you to protect as you add new teachers to your school community?
I place screening questions in the job application that will highlight their classical experience/openness to the classical model, then interview once, twice, sometimes three times with various members of my leadership team and faculty to determine quality and fit for our school. We expect that new teachers will jump in with an openness to learn, share, and attain excellence in their classroom methods as well as in their other duties in the school community. We all depend on one another to give 100% to make the ship sail, and we are all expected to move an oar in the right direction. Negativity or resistance to continuous improvement doesn’t work very well when a team is in full motion.
How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
We use ICLE programs, Classical U, Circe Institute, and Memoria Press often, which are great programs that offer good solid training to our teachers. We also use our connections with University of Dallas and its Classical Education department to help guide our efforts and pedagogy.
One thing I have discovered is to be very wary of any of our state and national teacher training offerings and even some of our diocesan training modules that are delivered through those public/secular institutions. It is not that they are inherently bad or that they don’t relay some best practices, it is just that they are so steeped in the progressive model of education that it is hard for teachers to “pluck the gems” from them. Sending our teachers to those training sessions tends to just pull them in disparate directions; therefore, I just avoid them altogether and find other ways to provide what my teachers need. I provide at minimum 40 hours of professional development to my teachers every year—so there is plenty to learn from there!
What percentage of your school’s budget is covered by tuition revenue? How important is fundraising to the continued operation of your school? What works best to inspire families and community members to support your school? What doesn’t work? How have you created momentum in your fundraising efforts and what plans do you have to strengthen your fundraising program in the years ahead?
At present, our tuition/student fees only make up about 50-60% of our school’s budget. I know this does not sound good, but when I took over the school five years ago that number was about 25–30%!
At any rate, fundraising is paramount to our operations. We simply cannot meet budget without it. We receive a generous stipend from the parish collections, and we are blessed to have a trust fund from which we receive a yearly stipend, as well. My practical goal in attaining full viability in our operational budget is to have our tuition and fees cover our staff salaries, which is about 80% of our overall budget—but even then fundraising will play a large role.
In all honesty, we face a problem that I am constantly trying to solve—that is offering an exemplary program, with stellar faculty, at an affordable cost to the families that we serve. The numbers don’t lie. Math is math. We serve a solid working class, and I simply cannot price those families out of our school with high tuition costs. Therefore, I do everything possible to create efficient revenue-expense frameworks in all functions of the school. Every program—from the cafeteria to athletics to our after school enrichment program—now funds itself with its own revenue stream, and prior to COVID our after school program was even adding to our revenue. I search for ways to maximize and create revenue streams while eliminating expenses at every turn. However, the one equation that just won’t work is this: to attract great teachers, I simply must offer a salary that keeps them above the poverty line, and those salaries cannot be funded by tuition/fees alone in the tuition-structure that I must maintain for my families. I know that I am not alone in this struggle.
Thus, we have fundraising. First, I report the state of the school each year to our families. I engage them in the realities of offering this amazing educational program at an affordable price, and impress upon them the crucial role they play in making our “equation” work. I also explain this “equation” to our new families—so they understand from the beginning that this is a true partnership and a community effort. This seems to be the most effective way of inspiring the self-giving and the work it takes to maintain our fundraising efforts over the course of the year—and it also inspires them to help us find donors who will support our mission.
I also show them all that we have done and continue to do to deliver a high-quality education, so that our families always know where their money is being spent. Whether it is new paint on the walls, or new literature for their classrooms, our families know how money is spent. Transparency is key for families (and donors); they must have confidence that we are being good stewards of their treasure.
Over the past few years, we have made a few changes that really helped us gain momentum in fundraising. The first was what I mentioned above—complete TRANSPARENCY in the budget (even if it looks a bit scary at first!). There were some very old and deeply embedded, ugly assumptions that had been swirling around about the management of the school funds prior to my becoming principal, so that was the first hurdle we had to confront.
Secondly, we launched a renewal of our fundraising events that intentionally included more of the parish and surrounding communities. Our Fall Fest became a huge partnership between the parish AND the school, with outreach to the entire community to join in on the fun. Our Spring Fling became the Spring Gala—and expanded to include dinner and dancing with local bands. We also opened and advertised the gala to all, not just school families as it had been in the past. We applied that same budgeting method of efficiency and data-driven decision making to all aspects of each event, which allowed us to focus only on the activities that gave us the biggest “bang for our buck.” We found that at times you have to spend money to make money, otherwise you reach a point of diminishing returns and it is not worth all the effort. With this strategy, we doubled our gala revenue the first year, and increased our revenue by 40% the next year! Our fundraising continues to increase steadily by using this formula—and our parents and parishioners serve on the committees that make it happen. Our pastor, Fr. Keith Koehl, is wonderful at fundraising, and he is very instrumental in leading our efforts!
Third, we have really worked to engage private donors and foundations. Some of those are parishioners or former students who have heard of our renewal. I host them, tell them about all the changes we have made, they see our students and our programs in action, and they give generously! We have even been named as beneficiaries of estates. We also have been writing more grants than ever before, sharing our journey and success with others who share our vision and mission. I have always said that excellence attracts excellence. When you share what great things you are doing, good people want to invest in your product!
The reality is that we must continue this path of vigorous fundraising. Through the generosity of donors, we have been able to place some funds into a Memorial Fund that allows some cushion for our year-to-year operations, but what we are looking to establish is an Annual Giving Fund (with the help of some large donors to get it started) that will sustain us long-term and provide the needed interest each year with which to meet our operational budget.
Are you the primary fundraiser for your school? How many hours do you spend on fundraising every week? How many hours does other staff spend on fundraising?
Yes! As the “face,” the “hometown girl,” and “the fully vested former student” of the school, I fundamentally serve as the primary fundraiser and marketing executive. I spend anywhere from 4–15 hours a week on fundraising activities, to include:
Phone calls/meetings with current or former parents/alum discussing support opportunities;
Grant writing/reporting or meeting with foundation board members to ensure that we maximize our benefit and efforts in grant writing;
Determining strategy for fundraising opportunities;
Planning fundraising events with my team;
Seeking new avenues for funding; and
Connecting with community people and groups that will link us with possible donors.
I have a part-time grant writer who works off campus and spends about 10 hours a week to specifically handle the grant writing timelines and seek new grants. I also have a development/marketing director full-time on campus who spends 35 hours on marketing, running our social media, communications, website, advertising, writing news articles for the local newspaper, and facilitating our big fundraising events—all while also squeezing in 5 hours a week as cheer coach, House mentor, 8th grade homeroom sponsor, and school events manager.
(As in most Catholic schools, we grab talent when we see it, and give everyone at least 5 “hats” to wear. This is not always the best policy if you can avoid it, as it burns people out fast. I try to use this practice sparingly. However, this has always been our predicament in building the Kingdom—always understaffed and underfunded. Even the first apostles were sent out just “two by two” with no money and no sandals!)
What have you learned about relationships with those who oversee your school? What are common challenges for schools operating under your model and what is your school doing well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships?
The most important relationship is the one between the principal and the pastor. Sometimes if the pastor does not see or support the mission of what the school needs, then it is the principal’s job to continue to be the advocate for the school and find support from other areas of the school community or the diocese—but it is always best if you can start off on the same page. Keep in mind that change is harder for some people than others, and we therefore must be ready to spend a lot of time just sitting down and talking to one another, constantly communicating the vision.
Even before we announced that we were going to move to a classical model, I spent lots of time with my faculty, my pastor, my advisory board, influential parents, local classical Catholic proponents, and my superintendent discussing first WHY we needed to do this, then HOW it was going to be different than other Catholic schools, and finally WHAT it was going to look like (actually, we are still honing this last one as we progress in our methods). Once we all started speaking that same language, it became easier to spread the vision to others—then we could all hop into the same boat and start rowing in the same direction!
The common challenge that we all face as classical schools—spread out across the country—is that we don’t necessarily have all the resources we need to help us sail off into these “uncharted waters” at first. This Catholic School Playbook will help with that, as do groups such as ICLE, the Chesterton Network, etc. In my diocese, as I mentioned earlier, we wanted to be sure that we tackled some major challenges head on so that it would be easier if other schools wanted to join us on our journey; hence my amazing dean of curriculum worked on classical standards that could be used with our accreditation agency for schools like us. We now are going to meet regularly with that agency, along with our wonderfully supportive superintendent, to further develop other aspects of our accreditation process that would allow us to engage in continuous improvement with the freedom to operate in a classical model. It is so exciting to see this group of principals and school leaders come together to renew our Catholic schools in this special way, and I learn from them constantly!
What is your school known for in your area?
St. Mary’s is a legacy, and one big family. The oldest private school in the county, we have served multiple generations of virtuous, faithful, and well-educated students, many of whom have either stayed or returned to their hometown communities to take on leadership roles in their churches, as business owners, or in civil service. Each year, the valedictorian, salutatorian, (or both) of the local public high schools have always been St. Mary’s graduates. We currently have great-grandchildren of former students enrolled here.
I, myself, am a St. Mary’s alum, as are my father, my aunt, my godfather, my brother, numerous cousins, niece, nephew, and my own four children! And many of my staff are former students, as well. What an amazing blessing it is to serve the school that “built” us. We are all so passionate about the success of our mission here because we want our own children and children for generations to come to have this beautiful education!
What is your school’s greatest challenge?
I would say fundraising. As a small school in a small town, we don’t have the regular exposure to corporate and foundation funds that other schools have, and we serve a largely working class population so ability to raise funds from within is limited. Our St. Mary’s parish is amazingly supportive and generous, but that still doesn’t cover all of our operational costs.
We are intent on keeping our tuition low so that all families—including large Catholic families—can afford to attend, so we must make up a large portion of our operating budget with fundraising and grant writing. We keep a tight rein on expenses and pour the majority of our budget into really good teachers!
What does your school do better than any other school in your area?
We LOVE our students as our own, and know them each intimately as treasured creations of God. We encounter and engage the whole child, the entire family, and all the talents and gifts God has given them—and we do not see a child as a sum of test scores or diagnostics. We successfully serve diverse learners (autism, hearing loss, dyslexia, physical disabilities—to name only a few) because we serve CHILDREN CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD, not labels.
What have our questions not covered that would help clarify the success of your school?
I think I would just like to add that we must be BOLD in our endeavors to renew our schools. We must each be brave enough to confront what is failing, to talk honestly with others about why, and then prayerfully discern what that next step must be. There is no “handbook” written for this endeavor that will work with every single school, but we each can find our way if we are open to God’s will and are true to His desires for the communities we serve.
What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?
Sadly, I have noticed that many struggling schools are trying hard to keep up with the local public schools by following their programs and curriculum and then just adding Mass and a crucifix on the walls. As Catholic schools, we can never keep up with the millions of federally funded dollars that pour into public schools or the wealth that flows into elitist private schools—and WE SHOULDN’T BE TRYING!
St. Mary's is different because we are not afraid to be who God calls us to be—an authentically, unabashedly CATHOLIC school immersed in the (classical) intellectual tradition of the Church!
Share one custom that is unique to your school.
We have a beautiful family-oriented service formation program. Our older students—through daily activities, House activities, and special events—are always involved in the care or support of the younger students. Every one of our students—whether age 3 or 17—has a special job and special purpose each and every day on campus and in their classrooms. We take care of one another, guide each other in virtue, and experience the beauty of Christian charity. As much as possible, we seek service opportunities in our community, as well.
Share one resource that strengthens your school.
Trust—in one another, in our mission, and in our ability to succeed with God’s help.
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
The power of a good book study (or even just sharing professional articles) together as a faculty on a regular basis is worth its weight in gold!
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.
I pray—a lot, read books on classical methodologies and philosophies, study about other schools and best practices, talk with people who are steeped in this tradition, and then share the “sound bites” and “golden nuggets of wisdom” with my faculty.