Catholic Herald Staff
For many of the Diocese of Superior’s 14 Catholic elementary schools, growing from the bottom up has been key for maintaining and growing enrollment. The preschool programs at Our Lady of the Lake School in Ashland and St. Mary’s Catholic School in Tomahawk are currently some of the strongest in the diocesan network of schools.
Principals Betty Swiston and Rita Lee commented on the success of their programs.
Striving to “create a strong foundation for future school success,” the Tomahawk school’s principal Lee said their early childhood program has a lot to offer the area. With hands-on learning and skills development in a safe, friendly environment, the program also offers the unique characteristics of a faith-filled setting and multi-grade interactions, as is the case with all diocesan early education programs.
St. Mary’s does this through “activities such as reading buddies, daily all-school prayer, and special school retreats,” Lee said.
She added, “Our faith-filled environment focuses on the wonders of God in every person, learning how to make good choices, sharing, making new friends, growing in confidence in the gifts God gave us, learning to make the sign of the cross, and learning our first prayers.”
The ratio of Catholic to non-Catholic families varies from school to school. St. Mary’s early childhood program averages 50/50 percent. Our Lady of the Lake averages an 80/20 percentage ratio.
Following early childhood standards and the philosophy of hands-on learning through two-week themes, Swiston said, “OLL School has worked to make our preschool program the Chequamegon area’s premier early childhood program.”
Their enrollment transitioning to Kindergarten is approximately 50 percent, or 10 students annually.
The highest rate of continued enrollment comes from families participating in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. Our Lady of the Lakes School is in its third year of participation in WPCP.
The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program began for the 2013-2014 academic year with 25 participating schools in the Milwaukee and Racine areas. A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction news release from January 2018 reported 222 private nonsectarian and religious schools had registered for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program for the 2018-2019 school year. The news release noted, “Enrollment in the statewide voucher program in 2018-19 is limited to 3 percent of a given school district’s student population.”
Three of those were in the Diocese of Superior – Our Lady of the Lake in Ashland and two schools new to the program, Our Lady of Sorrows in Ladysmith and St. Joseph’s in Rice Lake.
According to Lee, “Retaining our students from 4K into our Kindergarten program has been a top priority over the past few years” as, historically, many families chose to leave after 4K.
To improve their transition rate, the school has “implemented more inter-grade activities to help students get to know the next year’s teacher so they can form a bond and feel comfortable with the transition into the next grade,” Lee said.
Through working with the diocese’s strategic marketing and development program, Lee stated, “we have worked hard to keep these students in our building. Last year we only [had] two students leave to go to the local public school.”
Flexible scheduling options has aided both schools to maintain and increase their programs’ enrollment.
Swiston believes another factor for her school’s enrollment trends are optional before and after school care. The latter has grown “due to helping meet the needs of our working parents,” the principal said.
Lee also commented that St. Mary’s seeks to “include our families in extra activities that allow them to be part of their child’s school day. We have an open door policy for all families.”
While most schools throughout the diocese’s school system use social media, especially Facebook, both Lee and Swiston shared that “word of mouth,” as well as happy children, are still the best and most effective forms of marketing.
“There is no better testimonial than a satisfied parent,” Lee said.
Initiatives that highlight individual grades – Ashland does so through their Facebook page and Tomahawk with grade-specific brochures – were also recognized as influential in retaining students, along with local newspaper and radio ads.
Most of the diocesan Catholic schools regularly share updates and photos via public Facebook pages. A listing of all the schools with links to their websites is available at www.catholicdos.org/school-directory. All are open for enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year.