Sacred Heart Academy's principal tried everything to save the 81-year-old Tampa institution.
He stocked the computer lab with iMacs and iPads. He started a new art program, gave personalized tours and his staff sent out mailers promoting the school. A parent helped redesign the school's website.
It all worked: 16 new students signed up. But the school still struggled to keep half of its 110 students. "We can't keep a school open like that, it's not feasible," said principal Kenn Hitchcock.
He and the pastor decided to close the school next month, the latest casualty in the dwindling enrollment crisis facing Catholic schools nationwide.
Even after merging four years ago with another now-defunct Catholic school, Sacred Heart Interparochial School in Pinellas Park continues to wrestle with growing its student body.
Hoping to turn the tide, the Diocese of St. Petersburg is undertaking sweeping and aggressive changes that officials hope will carry local Catholic schools into the future. A strategic plan calls for making schools more efficient, using more of Florida's private school vouchers for low-income students and developing key alliances that support schools academically and financially.
"It's a reimagining of how our schools would look like in five to 10 years from now, to make them viable," said Alberto Vazquez-Matos, the diocese's superintendent.
He is moving to centralize operations in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties — changes that will make local Catholic schools run more like public school districts and less like independent schools.
Diocese officials also are banking on a partnership with Notre Dame University's Ace Academies. Being part of the program means having access to more resources, contacts, and grant money.
The collaboration has started at Sacred Heart Interparochial and St. Joseph Catholic School in Tampa with a goal to expand to five more schools.
The moves may not help his school, Hitchcock said, but they are significant and come at a time when families have so many schooling options.
"The format of the Catholic school that has existed for last 200 years is not working," he said. "It's a mobile society now, and schools have to adjust."
A national problem
Nationwide, enrollment in Catholic schools decreased from 2.32 million students in 2006-07 to about 2 million students this year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Enrollment in the St. Petersburg Diocese schools has dropped from 13,259 students in the 2006-07 school year to 11,261 in 2011-12. The diocese oversees 27 prekindergarten to eighth-grade schools, four high schools and 15 early education centers.
To streamline operations, the diocese will centralize the schools' finances and hire an assistant superintendent to oversee the schools' $55 million budget, Vazquez-Matos said. A flat tuition rate for diocesan schools has been discussed but these are "premature conversations," he said.
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Three new regional superintendents also will help principals with the day-to-day operations, including managing finances and fostering collaborations.
Keeping enrollment figures steady in the face of economic and demographic changes is not easy.
No one knows that better than Brenda Budd, the first-year lay principal of St. Joseph. The 115-year-old school is now 85 percent Hispanic.
With 210 students in the pre-K to eighth-grade school, St. Joseph has bucked the declining enrollment trends in the diocese. About 60 percent of the student body receives the state's private school scholarships, Budd said.
"The diocese has done an excellent job of trying to reach out and realizing that the faces of the Catholic school is changing," she said. "But we are changing with them."
At Sacred Heart Interparochial, the ethnic makeup of the school is changing, too, said principal Andy Shannon. Though two-thirds of his students are white, a third consists of minorities, including a growing Asian and Pacific Islander population.
Sacred Heart Interparochial still struggles with enrollment, but things are looking better for the pre-K to eighth-grade school, Shannon said.
In January, Sacred Heart Parochial went from a parish school being run by a church to a diocesan school, he said. The school reinstituted its pre-K program, which helped improved numbers. There are 140 students in the K-8 grades and 20 in pre-K, he said.
"Most of our growth is in kindergarten."
In becoming Ace Academies, Sacred Heart Interparochial and St. Joseph joined a program, established in 2010, in three Catholic schools in Tucson, Ariz.
One of the schools, St. John the Evangelist, was in such bad shape, the bishop threatened to shut it down, said Roseanne Villanueva, the principal.
Enrollment at St. John was dropping, the finances were a mess and teachers had taken a 10 percent pay cut, she said. Ace Academies helps schools boost enrollment and adopt rigorous academics that attract parents, among other things.
"In our first year, we were able to turn things around," said Villanueva. "Within the last two years, we've increased enrollment by 30 students. Our test scores have gone up by two grade level in some instances."
To help Sacred Heart Interparochial and St. Joseph grow, the Notre Dame program will hire an instructional coach and a development director, said Christian Dallavis, the director of the university's Ace Academies.
The coach will help train teachers and support principals, while the development director will work on targeting families that qualify for vouchers. "We want to provide Catholic education of the highest quality to as many kids as possible," Dallavis said.
Support from parents
Parents at Sacred Heart Interparochial are enthusiastic about Notre Dame.
"The name itself draws alumni," said Tony Zielmanski Jr. of Seminole, whose daughter attends the school.
Other parents, meanwhile, hope changes like merging school finances will help secure their future.
"I think it's a good thing," said Bill Sullivan of Tampa, whose daughter attends St. Joseph. "Obviously, all schools need some help now."