Having parents visit occasionally for lunch is a treat for students and parents. It also solidifies the home-school connection and allows families to feel supported in raising their children in an environment of faith and values. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

“Our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Superior are a great asset to our efforts to move the diocese from Maintenance to Mission.”

This comment from diocesan Superintendent of Schools Peggy Schoenfuss affirms the role of the 14 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Superior and the role they play in their communities and parishes.

Schoenfuss added, “We have been focusing on effecting evangelization and truly bringing our students and their families into a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

She also noted how the schools’ leadership works together as a team – sharing ideas, resources and purchasing options – that help limit expenses and open opportunities. Schoenfuss said this past year a committee was developed to look at the schools’ biggest financial commitment.

“We have wonderful individuals who teach and work in our schools,” she said. “We want to ensure that we can provide a living wage and benefits program so they can continue to be a part of our school families.”

The marketing and development training received a few years ago continues to bear fruits, and she is grateful to the many staff and volunteers who are sharing their gifts in these regards.

One person who participated in that training and has seen its tremendous effectiveness is St. Mary’s School Assistant Principal Laura Jo Jarchow.

“Doing the SMDP (Strategic Marketing and Development Planning) really changed the culture and climate of the school,” Jarchow said of the effect in New Richmond.

Jarchow stepped into the role as principal of St. Mary’s at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, just months into the SMDP program, which all the principals participated in thanks to a grant written by the diocese. A self-proclaimed “strict rule follower,” Jarchow implemented what she learned.

One of the primary focuses was effective use of social media. Even though the school she was leading faced financial perils, including potential closure, Jarchow believes the faithful execution of the SMDP program has been key in the school’s turnaround. Within a year, the school had a balanced budget and within five years, enrollment had doubled. The school currently has a large amount in savings and the parish subsidy for the school has been drastically reduced.

Jarchow, whose role as principal kept her busy – including filling in for teachers when a substitute teacher wasn’t available and assisting with students’ needs in the office – started with only one or two posts a week on Facebook and Instagram.

“When COVID hit,” she added, “that was our main way of communicating, and I really worked at it.”

Jarchow consistently posts even throughout the summer months and ensures the website is always up to date.

Now that she is only working part-time as assistant principal, she has more time to dedicate to the communications and posts two or three times daily. Jarchow has adapted to the majority demographic of younger parents who have their phones all the time and want to see what their children are doing throughout the day. Parents can count on her posting first thing in the morning, at noon, before school gets out or at 5 p.m. They know to watch, and she has expanded posts from simply school- or student-related activities to catechizing and helping children – and especially their parents – understand the faith better.

Using the catechetical training teachers have been receiving, Jarchow started posting questions and answers about why Catholics do what they do.

She is “trying to hit all aspects so people are engaged.”

The school doesn’t make much use of traditional marketing methods like newspaper ads or radio because parents are being reached and sharing posts with other potential parents. People who interact with posts are invited to follow the page, and the school’s social media following has “exploded,” Jarchow said.

Given that parents already have a relationship with the school, the posts give them a real window into the building and school routines. Parents of older students are especially appreciative of the chance to see what their children are learning, because when asked, their typical answers are only a word or two.

“Parents look forward to the good stuff,” Jarchow said when they scroll through so much negativity and polarizing content. They love seeing learning and smiles and the positive environment their children are thriving in, she affirmed.

The assistant principal works closely with the parish business manager and faith formation coordinator, because “we’re good for the parish.” Even with 30 percent of the student population not being Catholic, Jarchow ensures the parish sees what the school is doing and feels vested in Catholic education for their community. She consistently communicates school information in the parish bulletin and sends out a quarterly newsletter to school alumni.

It didn’t happen overnight, Jarchow clarified, saying it took nine years to really see the results of her work. She admitted that initially there was some resistance to changes she was implementing.

“The challenge is that people fear change, but change isn’t synonymous with bad,” Jarchow commented. “Change doesn’t always mean it’s going to be better either, but different.”

Jarchow spoke further about the power of climate and culture in the school environment.

“Climate changes on a daily basis,” she said. “Culture is longstanding. But you can’t change the culture unless the climate is a certain way for a while.”

She shared that when she took over as principal, having been a teacher at the school, she was realistic and openly communicated that she knew mistakes would be made. At the same time, she committed to not asking her teachers to do anything she wasn’t willing to do herself.

“We have to be a team, and I had to set the example,” she said.

Being intentional about making the daily climate one of positivity and praise – something she said is missing in all of society – Jarchow witnessed real changes in the school culture after just a couple years.

Jarchow acknowledged that New Richmond’s proximity to the Twin Cities has been a factor in the school’s increased enrollment, but added that the school’s curriculum and Catholic values are also a draw. These include not teaching controversial theories and curriculums that are being adopted in public schools.

“We allow any student that follows the school’s mission,” Jarchow explained. She tells parents that the school’s policy is the same across the diocese under the direction of Bishop James P. Powers and ultimately, Pope Francis. “If you don’t agree with Catholic doctrine, then we’re likely not the school for you,” she relayed, saying she supports each parent’s making the choice for what they believe is the right educational setting for their children.

When it comes to students with special needs or discipline challenges, Jarchow said the position is to “Love and cater to them. Do whatever we can to foster their education,” but that discipline focused on respecting each student’s learning needs. So if one child is struggling in a way that disrupts the classroom, that child will be addressed and worked with so as not to interfere with the general learning environment.

Non-Catholic students are respected for their beliefs, and this creates a setting similar to what they will encounter in adulthood – learning to dialogue and interact with those of different backgrounds, grounded in Christian truths but encouraging openness to each other and what is held in common.

Jarchow gave a lot of credit to St. Mary’s pastor, Fr. John Anderson, for his work with the school students and parish. She said, “He is a wonderful homilist, especially during children’s liturgy, making it relatable to kids and keeping it short.”

On Wednesdays, the priest also visits classrooms, rotating every-other-week between upper and lower grades. The fact that he is also a licensed bus driver allows Fr. John to accompany school children on field trips and continue to be engaged with high schoolers, accompanying them to sporting events. Jarchow said he makes a real effort to bond with middle school students so that, as they pass on to high school, they stay connected to their faith and involved in faith formation.

“Very, very fortunate,” she described the dynamic where a group of these high school students come in and run children’s liturgy Sunday mornings during Mass.

A Catholic school provides these students an immersive experience where the faith is incorporated through the practice of the sacraments and devotions like adoration and the rosary. Older students are “faith friends,” mentoring younger students, and even the non-Catholic teachers, Jarchow stated, are committed to an environment of faith and Christian values.

“We try to put Christ in the center of every single lesson,” Jarchow concluded.