Anatomy of a Catholic School Enrollment Increase: Partnership Cleveland

We are better together.

I have worked in Catholic schools since 1997 and have helped people run them since 2008, but I’ve never seen anything like what is happening at St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke Catholic Schools in Cleveland in 2020.

Families are flocking to St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke. Enrollment across both schools is up 32 percent since May.

And they keep coming. In the first two weeks of school, teachers have welcomed five to seven newly enrolled students each day. Across both schools, enrollment has risen nearly 15 percent since the first day of school.

Just months ago, both schools might have imagined a very different September. In January, the St. Thomas Aquinas community was told it was being closed. Shortly after that decision was reversed, students were sent home for COVID. The annual drive to enroll new students became impossible: open houses, enrollment bazaars, visits to local daycares and preschools, and touring interested parents around the building were all shut down. Enrollment had declined by more than a quarter of their students since 2016. The historical trend was bleak; the current situation was grim. By April, only about a dozen new students had been enrolled.

Today, however, 196 new students are in school, many classrooms are nearly full, and families are still calling.

Twins from St. Thomas Aquinas definitely agree we are better together.

What happened? Why did these schools get so popular all of a sudden?

Sr. Helen Prejean says, “I watch what I do to see what I believe,” and I believe the key to school culture is aligning what you do to what you believe. The beliefs that follow inform the concrete steps we’ve taken to deepen the capacity of St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke to form children. And we’re blessed that the result so far is that we have more opportunities to do just that.

We believe that…

  1. Jesus calls us each by name. Growing enrollment is all about getting to know people—calling them by name. We dedicated resources to create a new position, shared across both schools, to do exactly that, full-time. We then hired someone who is uniquely positioned to build relationships and call families by name in the communities our schools serve. Portia Gadson is the Enrollment Coordinator for both schools; previously she served as assistant principal of St. Thomas Aquinas, where her children attended. She is a graduate of St. Henry, the school that now houses Archbishop Lyke, and she lives a stone’s throw from campus. She knows the families and the neighborhoods inside and out. Portia is also a former air traffic controller—she can keep a lot of things moving at once, and most importantly, she knows how to land every plane. Portia is great at getting people interested in the schools, but her ability to convert inquiries into enrollments is extraordinary. She follows up—assiduously—with every mom, dad, or grandma who calls. She approaches each inquiry with tenacity and zeal to welcome them to the family, and their child is nearly always sitting in one of our desks within a few days (if not a few hours).

    Portia Gadson, Enrollment Manager for Partnership Schools, Cleveland

  2. Excellence happens on purpose.  We’ve implemented a systematic inquiry tracking and enrollment management system. We have implemented a rigorous process of tracking and monitoring inquiries, follow-ups, enrollments, registrations, and scholarship applications, so that Portia, the network, and each principal all have their finger on the pulse of the enrollment pipeline at all times. When each inquiry is systematically tracked, potential recruiting hotbeds can be identified; follow-ups are systematically conducted; interested parents never fall through the cracks. The system allows us to target marketing more effectively as well, making limited marketing dollars go farther. Once we implemented the enrollment and inquiry tracking and management process, enrollments began to increase significantly.
  3. We are made for greatness. As educators, our vocation is to unleash our students’ potential—to fan their gifts into a flame—and a benefit of our national team’s experience and expertise is knowing which areas of investment will make the biggest impact on student learning and formation. St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke became part of the Partnership Schools network on July 1, 2020. To strengthen learning, the new affiliation focuses on the schools’ programs (the “software” of the school)—extending the school day (from 8 am to 4 pm), bringing new curricula, providing extensive professional development for teachers, and supporting school leaders. Cleveland supporters of the Partnership like Ozanne Construction invested significantly in renewing the schools’ facilities (the “hardware”) over the summer; new doors, fresh floors, loads of bright paint, new whiteboards, and much more have brought new life to these sturdy buildings that have been anchors in their communities for decades.  Parents see the investment in the hardware and the software of the school and know it will translate to an investment in their child.
  4. We are better together. By the first day of school, enrollment was up—over 180 at Archbishop Lyke and over 200 at St. Thomas Aquinas. But parents with kids at home were driving by the schools and hearing about them from friends. Parents want their kids to be with other kids. And because we believe we learn better together, we made a decision in June that we would return to full-time, 5-day-per-week instruction as soon as it is safe. Once parents started seeing kids out on our playgrounds playing with other kids at recess or learning in outdoor classrooms under tents, they started picking up their phones. At St. Thomas Aquinas, in particular, which sits at a busy intersection on Superior Avenue, the calls have been pouring in after morning arrival and afternoon dismissal. Parents sitting in traffic see kids in school, grab their phones, and call Portia: “Are you doing in-person school? I want that. Can I still enroll?” The “better together” mindset is extended to new families too: the schools have enrolled forty more children to date since the first day of school. Local ABC News included Archbishop Lyke and St. Thomas Aquinas in their coverage of parent demand for in-person learning:

  5. We can do hard things. It is a challenge for teachers to have a new student join a class after the year has begun. At St. Thomas Aquinas over the last three weeks, some teachers have received three, four, or more students in a single week. The responses of these teachers have been so welcoming and sincere and can be summed up simply: “We are better together.” The teachers’ warm responses to the children do not diminish the real challenge of absorbing so many new kids; instead, it reflects the teachers’ other steadfast belief: “We can do hard things.” There is a solution-oriented mindset that is spreading across the school teams, as teachers across both schools are zooming with each other to grapple with the challenges of teaching kids both at-home and in-person, both live (synchronously) and on-demand (asynchronously).

There are surely other factors that contribute to the leap in enrollment St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke are experiencing. I will note one factor that I did not name in my “top five”: We have the benefit of parental choice scholarships, and all but a handful of our students receive Cleveland or EdChoice scholarships that cover their tuition. Yet Cleveland has had school choice for 25 years, and it has not been a panacea. In fact, the Diocese of Cleveland has closed schools at about the same rate as the rest of the nation, with 35 percent of its Catholic schools shutting their doors between 1999 and 2019. That said, this enrollment growth could not have happened without parental choice. The Cleveland, EdChoice, and Jon Peterson scholarships are necessary—but insufficient—for urban Catholic schools to continue offering families the opportunity to choose the school they believe to be best for their child.

An Archbishop Lyke middle schooler, hard at work.

St. Augustine tells us, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” At Archbishop Lyke and St. Thomas Aquinas, we believe that each child is called by name; that excellence happens on purpose; that we are all made for greatness; that we can do hard things; and we are made for each other and better together. It is certainly rewarding to act on these beliefs and see parents respond by bringing their children to our schools in record numbers this year.

But having the opportunity to teach more children is just the beginning of the shared mission our beliefs inspire. As Catholic school educators, our goal is not just to enroll more students; it is to ensure that each of them flourishes in this life and the next by providing a Catholic education of the highest quality. Growing enrollment is the first step; the long game is preparing future leaders for Cleveland and the world whose lives will make God known, loved, and served, and who will ultimately become saints for heaven.

Christian Dallavis is the Assistant Superintendent of Partnership Schools.