Pick Me Pick Me

Catholic schools in the Syracuse Diocese are making a strong effort to market themselves in a sluggish economy. Using strong marketing and public relations, Catholic schools are competing against public and magnet schools. Parents, teachers and community members are seeing the value of Catholic schools and taking steps to ensure their longevity for the future.
Most Holy Rosary School in Syracuse has taken a look at its situation and formed a marketing committee to look at how best to serve the people of the community.
Barbara Messina, principal of Most Holy Rosary School, has changed its focus because of the committee. “No matter how good our programs are, we can’t take anything for granted. We are paying attention to what we do well and we make them better. We are never complacent,” Messina said. “But we have a lot to be proud of. We have many accomplishments to celebrate. We also have to get people to come inside our school and feel the atmosphere here. We have a lot to offer and it’s not the same as other Catholic schools.” Mary Schweitzer-Burgmeier, public relations coordinator for Most Holy Rosary School, said the school continues to find creative ways to make education fun and provide programs that will draw students from public schools.
“This year, we added the Liverpool’s Before and After School (BASCOL) program at our school. We had to change our play areas, but we felt having child care was important for parents. We have a strong Eckerd Drug Quiz program here and our educational standards are very high,” Schweitzer-Burgmeier said. “There are many public schools that are in disarray. When parents walk in, they feel very anxious. Here at Rosary, it’s so incredibly different.”
The family-centered, prayerful environment is one of the ways Most Holy Rosary separates itself from public schools, Schweitzer-Burgmeier said. “The difference in atmosphere is what you pay for,” said Schweitzer-Burgmeier, who has a daughter enrolled at the school. “When you hear about kids getting beat up and bullied, you realize how safe our children are in Catholic schools.”
Messina said she understands the changing economy has forced schools to alter strategies on marketing and public relations, leading to a great competition for students. “Years ago, the parish took care of things. But now, we have to see ourselves as a business. People have come out of the woodwork to help. We had only four people before on our marketing committee, but now we have 20. We have enthusiastic people — people new to the parish and the community — who care. The school will always need its alumni support, but we need a fresh focus.”
At St. Mary’s School in Clinton, there is a struggle to be noticed. A school with high academic achievement and new after-school programs, St. Mary’s competes with some of the best public school districts in the state. Melanie Kirkland, technology teacher at St. Mary’s School, has been helping with public relations and marketing along with principal Linda DePhillips. The school has seen the need for visibility and has a plan.
“This is a big focus for the school. We are looking to put up a billboard so we are more known in public. Right now, people need to know what we are doing. We are in a great location and serve 11 school districts in the surrounding communities, including Clinton, New Hartford and Whitesboro,” Kirkland said. “We have to go above and beyond if we want to be known.”
Kirkland said St. Mary’s School is a close-knit community with strong parental support. The school’s test scores have been exceptional, with all students scoring in Levels 3 and 4 on the New York State exams. With strong French and technology curriculums, along with many clubs and extracurricular activities, the school, Kirkland hopes, will be an option considered by more parents.
“This is a great school. We have so many students on the honor roll, perfect New York State test scores and sports clubs, along with chess, drama, arts and crafts, and stamp clubs, we feel we have something to offer any child,” Kirkland said. “We have been hidden for so long and we need to publicize ourselves.”
DePhillips said recent school closings in the diocese have made parents concerned, but she feels their new marketing strategy will take care of those worries.
“If we can just get people into the building, they will be pleasantly surprised. We are making a concerted effort here to fill our classrooms,” DePhillips explained. “Our parent group has been so supportive. They helped us create a new brochure for the school, ordered special paper so everything looked as professional as possible.”
Creating a billboard to advertise St. Mary’s School in the area is coming closer to reality, DePhillips said. The billboard would be a constant reminder to motorists of St. Mary’s School’s presence in the community. “We want to focus on getting people in our kindergarten and pre-K program and then we will have a much better chance at retention. I’m meeting with families all the time wanting to get their children in here, so our efforts are being seen,” DePhillips said.
St. Matthew’s School in East Syracuse has been in the media eye over the last few months. During the school’s 50th anniversary celebration, local television stations featured the school’s students and one of its faculty, giving increased visibility to the quality of the school’s education. Sister Marianne Baehr, CSJ, principal of St. Matthew’s School, said she is pleased with the coverage the school has received.
“But the real person behind that was Father Robert Dwyer. He has encouraged publicity in the school and has encouraged people to write grants to bring money in for new programs,” Sister Marianne said. “Father Dwyer has been behind the scenes and has been instrumental.” Over the last year, St. Matthew’s School was awarded over $40,000 in grants. The money has bolstered its technology program that makes the school more appealing to potential students.
“The teachers are doing a fantastic job getting the students to extend themselves. With the technology, they are learning how to make spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, along with learning to save work on a disk,” Sister Marianne said. “Because we have the technology in place, this is a reality for us. The grants have given us money to use for these special projects, so we can focus other monies on operating expenses.”
Sister Marianne has been working with Joyce Ungaro, who has dedicated one day a week to help her look for future grants and keep the pipeline of funds going. “We have two areas we want to concentrate on with our next set of grants. We want to create a peer mediation board to train the older students to mediate when there is bullying. This would teach the children leadership and responsibility,” Sister Marianne said. “We also want to develop an artistic program after school, focusing on music and dance. We have a wonderful music program here, led by Jennifer Tompkins. The school feels we can take that to the next level and nurture those talents into something more.”
In the Southern Tier, the Catholic schools are in a consolidated system. This creates a two-fold marketing approach, said Mary Ellen Kelley, principal of St. John’s School in Binghamton.
“Because we are consolidated, we work together as schools. The principals meet to discuss curriculum and goals while thinking about better ways to market our system,” Kelley said. “We have to both market our system and market our individual school. Yes, we share money raised by the system, but that’s why we focus on our own school as well. I can’t imagine going back to a system where the school solely relies on the parish.”
Kelley said Catholic schools’ focus should be going above and beyond the norm to raise awareness about quality Catholic education.
“We have a fine faculty and staff here at St. John’s. We are trying to be innovative,” she said. Kevin Lucia, an English and reading teacher for grades six, seven and eight at St. John’s School, is one of the staff leading the cutting edge programs. He and his students have been making their own Star Wars movie using the latest digital technology and computer design. “One year ago, the students were sitting in the class, talking about journalism and media and they asked if there was anything we could do with digital media,” Lucia said. “They wanted to do a movie, so we researched it and we began work.”
Lucia explained that parents have helped make costumes for the kids as well as helping provide some of the digital cameras used in the production of the movie, Fall of the Jedi. Lucia hopes the first phase of the production will be completed by Feb. 8.
“It’s amazing how everything has come together. We have a website to update people on our progress. I found software so we can do blue screen composition and enhance the movie by using digital background in some parts,” he said. “Catholic and public schools haven’t seen anything like this. There is huge potential here. We could have film festivals of digital films created by the students. It’s both educational and vocational. They might end up working in the movie industry someday. I’m convinced that a project like this couldn’t have come about in a public school. Because everyone at St. John’s cared about it, the program was started.” Steadily, Catholic schools are going to the head of the class to keep themselves strong and vibrant.
“We provide a fine education. Our schools are safe and family-oriented. Christ is a part of the classroom and the school,” Kelley said. “You can feel the difference at a Catholic school.”

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