July 24, 2003
You’ve Got to Have a Dream
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Two IHM Sisters from Philadelphia share one Catholic school’s story of success
Sister Constance Marie Touey, IHM, and Sister Jeannette Lucey, IHM came to Syracuse from Philadelphia with a message. Addressing a crowded room of pastors, parents, administrators and faculty at Le Moyne Manor on July 9, the sisters said that it is possible for diocesan Catholic schools to overcome current challenges. Sister Constance and Sister Jeannette were speaking from personal experience when they said that local Catholic schools could indeed become viable. Ten years ago, St. Francis De Sales School in Philadelphia, where Sister Constance serves as principal and Sister Jeannette is an eighth grade teacher, was on the brink of closing.
The school faced floundering enrollment and was operating on financial support from the Diocese of Philadelphia. There were no art or music programs; even necessities such as computers were scarce in the building. It was a grim picture, admitted Sister Constance. “Every bill that we received was a tragedy. Pipes were broken; there were holes in the auditorium floor; there wasn’t even a copier in the office and there was no money to buy one with,” said Sister Constance. “Morale was low everywhere.”
Realizing the school was on the “hit list” to be closed, Sister Constance and Sister Jeannette implemented a marketing and development campaign to save their school. A large part of their campaign included building a positive image of De Sales, as they affectionately call the school, in the community. For those who attended the sisters’ talk, some who traveled to Syracuse via a bus from the Southern Tier, the situation the De Sales once faced hits particularly close to home. Like De Sales, some diocesan Catholic schools face challenges of decreasing enrollment, financial concerns and school closings and consolidation. The sisters’ tale of turnaround for De Sales inspired those who are committed to Catholic education in the Diocese of Syracuse.
“The presentation was wonderful and dynamic,” said parent Josephine Corbacio. “To hear how the sisters’ transformed their school makes you think that there is hope for schools in our diocese. We can do something about the problems we are facing.” Today, De Sales, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, is a school filled to capacity, with children on waiting lists to get inside its doors. “The same can happen for diocesan Catholic schools by building a great image of your school,” said Sister Jeannette. “Parents base their decisions on the image of your school. Build a great image and build a reality to match.”
Under the umbrella of building a positive image is getting the word out to the community about the great things happening inside Catholic schools. Inform parishioners what is going on in schools and allow them to celebrate with the school in all the wonderful things that are happening, said Sister Jeannette. She also told parents to reach out. “Parents, you are the best advertisers for Catholic schools,” Sister Jeannette said. “Go to where fellow parents gather and enthusiastically talk to them about the advantages of a Catholic school education.” “We advocate friend-raising before fundraising,” added Sister Constance.
Sister Mary Anne Heenan, CSJ, former diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, agreed that creating “buzz” is a vital form of publicity for Catholic schools. “It is not billboards and posters, not that I discount these methods as effective means of marketing, but more importantly what happens on the local levels that will bring people into Catholic schools,” said Sister Mary Anne. The sisters also recommended the parents and faculty know the strengths of their school, even handing out worksheets to attendees so they can put these achievements in writing. “Don’t be afraid to share with students what a special place their school is so that they walk with their heads held high,” said Sister Constance. “This attitude translates into successful students who not only have respect in themselves, but also pride in their school and classmates.” During these uncertain times for some Catholic schools, there will be problems, said Sister Jeannette. She told her audience not to see obstacles as impossibilities, but rather view them as challenges that can be overcome. One of the challenges that Corbacio sees is potential tuition increases. “In following some of sisters’ recommendations, we can tackle challenges such as tuition increases head-on,” Corbacio noted. “Sure, it’s scary but we can be ready and follow through with ideas that help our schools in other ways, such as getting students in the classroom.”
With many Catholic schools’ closing, St. Francis De Sales is a success story. The sisters hoped that attendees walked away from the meeting with a renewed sense of hope for their own Catholic schools. “Magic happens at De Sales, but it is a work in progress,” said Sister Constance. “The same can happen at your schools. If you market them before it’s too late, then it will be good for all Catholic schools.”