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Catholic Schools: Addressing Enrollment Challenges & Adapting to a New Environment
Claire Hollowell

Many Catholic schools are facing new trials, tribulations, and adjustments when it comes to thriving in a virtual world.

One of the tried and true ways to overcome these challenges to meet your Catholic school enrollment goals for the coming school year: coming together and sharing ideas.

In our recent webinar, Growing Catholic School Enrollment in a Virtual World, we got to hear firsthand how some thriving Catholic schools are staying engaged with families and continuing the admissions and enrollment process.

Our panelists, Steve Clement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Laura Mooney from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and Mary Lenes from Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools shared their best advice, tips, and ideas to help other Catholic schools address current challenges and adapt to a new environment.

Meet the Panelists

Laura Mooney: I’m the Director of Enrollment Management for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. I work with all of our Catholic schools on their admissions and marketing. I help fill our seats with students and retain all of our current families.

Mary Lenes: I’m the Director of School Operations for the Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools, which is a part of the Diocese of Charlotte. We have 19 schools in the diocese and 9 of the schools in Charlotte are centralized which presents a unique challenge and opportunity.

Steve Clement: I’m the Senior Director of Enrollment for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. We have 104 elementary schools and 17 high schools. I work with centralized high schools and the elementary schools when they reach out for support.

Panel Q+A 

How has this adjustment period been for your school over the past two months as you adjust to COVID-19?

Laura: This adjustment period has definitely been a challenge for all of our schools. For the past couple of months our focus has been on staying as active as we can on social media. We want all of our families to know that just because our buildings are closed does not mean that our schools are closed. And we can still highlight all of the wonderful things that our schools are doing. We’ve also used our websites to highlight all of the good for our prospective parents, and as a reminder for our current parents of the value of our school.

Mary: We’ve been doing everything we can to stay in constant communication virtually. That’s the most important priority right now as well as connecting with the colleagues that you don’t see every day.

Steve: Our schools have been focusing primarily on communication, social media marketing, and looking at adjusting our financial aid process.

[Read: Financial aid hacks to help your school enroll more families]

Do you have any ideas of ways we can help parents and reach out to different audiences now and throughout the summer? 

Laura: One thing our schools are doing is distance learning. We’re also encouraging our schools to do more community activities. We host a daily morning prayer for everybody in the school to participate in. We’ve also been hosting dance parties so that the focus isn’t just on academics, but also on community building and extended value.

Mary: Our schools are continuing as if they were in person. We chose to do end of year grades, whereas I know some of our public school counterparts are only offering pass-fail. That’s a great marketing point. The principals at our schools are leaning on their student councils for different grade based activities. Our middle school is hosting grade level dances, recesses, and virtual field trips. The possibilities are endless. And not only can you serve your current families, but you can put those experiences on social media or your website to help build excitement for prospective families.

[Read: 5 ways to use social media to engage with new students]

Focusing on the Entire Student Lifecycle Thumbnail

Steve: I’m trying to honor the eighth-graders, the kindergarteners, and the seniors on their way out. A big part of the enrollment director’s job is to make families happy. We’re trying to leave the class of 2020, our kindergarteners, preschool students, and others with a positive exit point from our schools. We’re doing taped YouTube videos for graduation and getting seniors their portraits and having the archbishops speak. We want to make sure that from an enrollment standpoint, we’re taking care of the folks that are leaving our schools.

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How can we engage our teachers in admissions efforts without overwhelming them? How do you balance getting them involved in the process while being conscious of their time? 

Laura: I’m a former teacher so I understand what teachers are going through. I think the key is to keep things manageable. Kind of like the saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” it helps to give teachers small things that they can do one step at a time.

For example, this week we’re focusing on our kindergarten teachers and trying to encourage retention from pre-K to kindergarten. We ask if our kindergarten teachers can reach out to five pre-K families and send them one email in the next week. Breaking it up into small bites helps. You could ask if they would be willing to be present for one virtual Q+A admission session, or one Facebook live event. I’d suggest coming up with an array of ideas and then breaking it into a schedule so they don’t feel like you’re asking them to do one hundred different things in a week on top of teaching their classes.


How can you demonstrate the value of your school over other (free) options? Do you have any messaging tips to show families how you’re providing value to them?

 Steve: We have to show families that our schools are really made up of three pillars: academics, social, and spiritual identities. We have to display all of those things with tools like Facebook live events, live prayer services, and continued classes. We’re blessed with a 98% attendance rate right now in our high schools doing distance learning. We don’t need to message against other schools, instead, we can just show the data. Constantly showing the data across all of our platforms proves that our approach to learning is working.

Social media and email are great tools, but what are some other ways we can engage with prospective students? What strategies have you tried to branch out and reach different kinds of families and recruit new families? 

Laura: In short, digital marketing. That’s where you’re going to find the most families. With our digital marketing campaign, we’re able to focus on families at a certain income level. We’ve been working with our schools on doing more social media advertising and Google display ads.

Word of mouth references, having an informative website, and an active Facebook page are all crucial, but you really need to take that additional step and do some aggressive paid advertising for your school. Digital is where it’s at regardless now. Our schools have shared their webinars and virtual events on their websites and we’re constantly attracting families from those. A lot of families will go to our website and make a decision about us before they even call our schools. So incorporating all of our great events and what we have to offer on our website is important.

[Read: School marketing 101: how to build a basic marketing plan at your school]

Mary: We’ve found relationship building with feeder schools and different partners in the community to be very successful. I know that’s hard to start right now when you can’t go knock on a door and start that relationship. But try to build up any relationships that you do have. When companies are relocating, we always try to be aware of that and make contact with them so we can meet the new employees and families coming to the area. That’s one of the unique ways that we’ve found a different opportunity to meet new families.

Steve: One thing you can do is go old school and go to press releases. We had a school last night that was on the local news because their teachers did a parade through the local community to say hi to all of their students. That’s an easy way to find new families and see a spike in your inquiries. Getting a PR press release out there can be helpful. It might seem intimidating but it isn’t as hard as you think in practice.

For more tips and tricks to help you grow Catholic school enrollment in a virtual world—including how to handle financial assistance for hurting families and tips on hosting your own events, check out the full webinar. Plus, learn more about SchoolAdmin’s school admissions software that helps with strategic enrollment growth and our student enrollment management system that will make registration and re-enrollment a breeze.

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