Shrewd selling helps Catholic schools reverse slide in enrollment Archdiocese appeals to broader market

December 08, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

New York City, 1991. The Public Relations Society of America is handing out awards for the best sell jobs in the country. The winners walk across the dais. McDonald's. Crayola. The United States Army.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore.

A new era has dawned in Catholic education, and the Baltimore Archdiocese is in the thick of it.

After years of relying on a captive audience of loyal Roman Catholics to fill parochial schools, dioceses around the country have lost much of their traditional Catholic constituency in an increasingly secular society. So schools have to sell themselves to a broader market that includes more and more non-Catholics.

"Schools are seeing the need to really market themselves and to make their presence known in the community," said Suzanne Whitmore, director of development at Arthur Slade Regional School in Glen Burnie. "Catholic schools are having to work harder to not only maintain and increase enrollment but to let people know that we've always done an excellent job and we're still doing an excellent job of educating our students."

Despite the sour economy, there are signs that people in the Baltimore Archdiocese are getting the message.

This year, school enrollment in the Baltimore Archdiocese, which includes all of Maryland except the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, was 31,034. That is a 0.5 percent decline from the previous year, but enrollment has improved steadily over the past three years and has made large gains since the early '80s, when Baltimore's Catholic schools were losing students at an average of 6 percent a year.

Such progress is significant at a time when inner-city dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest -- in Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere -- are closing or consolidating schools. Catholic school officials attribute the change to a recognition that they have to sell Catholic education in much the same way that McDonald's sells hamburgers.

"Now we recognize we have to tell our story," said Lawrence Callahan, Catholic school superintendent in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "It's a business like any other business."

Baltimore was one of the first archdioceses in the country to launch an all-out marketing effort. It started three years ago with brochures and news releases and a marketing manual for each of the 101 schools in the archdiocese.

The blitz began this fall, when radio listeners heard about the virtues of a Catholic education from such prominent graduates as author Tom Clancy and broadcaster Jim McKay. Billboards throughout metropolitan Baltimore, and a couple in Hagerstown, showed beaming young faces and the slogan for Baltimore Catholic schools: "A valuable education. An education in values."

The same images traveled on the backs of buses throughout October and November. Images of youngsters working on computers were aimed at dispelling stereotypes that Catholic schools are low-tech. The whole cycle starts again in February.

The message is that with average annual tuitions of $1,800 for elementary and $3,600 for secondary schools, and a 90 percent college-attendance rate, Catholic schools are a good deal.

The marketing efforts are taking root in fertile ground. In recent years, national studies have shown that Catholic school students significantly outperform their counterparts in public schools.

The studies also suggest that, despite their tiny budgets, parochial schools do a better job of educating minorities. And, over the past decade, more and more minorities have turned to Catholic schools, which are less expensive than other private schools.

Black students make up 12 percent of Catholic school students in the Baltimore Archdiocese and 50 percent or more of the students in many Catholic schools in the city.

This greater awareness of the accomplishments of Catholic schools comes at a time when dissatisfaction with public schools is growing and a national movement for school choice -- allowing tax dollars to follow children to private and parochial schools -- is gaining momentum.

For Catholic schools in Baltimore and around the country, it is a moment of destiny. Nobody expects a return to the glory days of the late 1960s, when enrollment was at an all-time high of more than 6 million nationally and 74,000 in Baltimore. Those numbers have dropped by half or more.

But the potential for growth exists again. And much of it is accounted for by transfers of students -- Catholic and non-Catholic -- from the public schools.

"The word's getting out," said Terrence E. Ruppert, principal at St. Alphonsus-Basilica School in Baltimore. "We're getting more and more students whose parents are not satisfied with the public schools. They're people who had never really thought about Catholic schools before."

Though Baltimore's marketing campaign avoids direct comparisons with the public schools, parents looking for better discipline, higher academic standards and an emphasis on values are increasingly drawn to parochial schools.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.