Like many Catholics, Bob Healey was disturbed by the steady rate of Catholic school closures. Healey, however, was in a position to do something about it. Co-founder, with his brother Bill, of the Viking Yacht Co., Healey has devoted a significant part of his fortune to helping children get a good education. His latest mission: to save Catholic education.

Healey’s philanthropic endeavors have included building schools and providing food and aid for poor regions in Mexico and Sierra Leone, creating programs to train at-risk youth in equestrian care and boat building and repair, and funding numerous other projects to help youth get a good start in the world. In 1998, Healy founded the International Education Foundation to send children from low- and middle-income families to Catholic schools and universities.

That was when he began to run into his biggest problem: the collapse of Catholic education in the United States. “My Catholic education made a deep impression on me and made me who I am today,” Healey said. “As time went on and as Catholic schools were being closed, I cringed every time I saw it.” What good, he wondered, was tuition aid to Catholic schools if there were no Catholic schools to attend?

His solution was to found the Catholic School Development Program to help Catholic schools save themselves. Founded as a 501(c) nonprofit, and fully funded by Healey’s foundation, the Catholic School Development Program is, in the words of the executive director, Christine Healey (Bob’s daughter), “in the business of growing and sustaining Catholic education.” And they just may have found the formula that can reverse the trend of closing parochial schools.

New Challenges, New Solutions

While the International Education Foundation was founded as a grant-making organization, the Catholic School Development Program was created to offer services and operational support that would address, and reverse, the collapse of Catholic school education.

“There’s a failed business model in Catholic school education,” Christine Healey observed, “and they have to adjust to today’s market. The schools have to make a value proposition to families: Why is it worth writing that check for a Catholic education? Catholic schools offer an opportunity to have a child in a smaller-school environment where they will be taught Catholic values and achieve academic excellence. That value proposition is the same wherever we go.”

The challenges facing Catholic education are by now familiar. For years, the schools could draw on a large pool of free labor from nuns and other religious. Labor accounts for 80% of the total cost of running a school. With the decline in vocations, that free labor vanished, and the cost of providing a Catholic education skyrocketed. At the same time, Mass attendance declined, and with it the ability of a parish to adequately finance a school also declined.

Enrollment fell along with Mass attendance, as fewer committed Catholics meant fewer families opting for a religiously based education. Education became another consumer choice in the minds of the parents, and Catholic schools were not making the case that they provided good value for the money.

“The consumer needs to know what they’re getting,” Christine Healey said. “They’re different than they were in my parents’ generation when it comes to education. Catholic schools just need help telling the good news about what they offer.”

The solution is to make a few structural changes to allow Catholic schools run more like private schools. The techniques for increasing enrollment and raising money are standard in private schools and colleges, but are completely alien to most parochial schools, particularly grade schools. The goal is to keep tuition stable, improve the value proposition, and make every Catholic school self-sustaining.

Bold Proposition

The CSDP made a trial run with Camden Catholic High School in New Jersey, and that’s when they learned an interesting fact: 95% of Catholic high-school students came from Catholic elementary schools. In order to save the high schools, and even the colleges, you have to save the elementary schools.

They made a bold proposition to Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio (now of Brooklyn, N.Y.), when he was bishop of Camden: CSDP would manage all of the schools in the diocese. Over the previous four years, Camden had closed one-third of its schools and half its parishes, and more were on the chopping block. Of the 21 remaining schools, five are located in poverty-blighted Camden, which is routinely listed among the top five most dangerous places in America. The bishop had nothing to lose.

“It was the bishop’s position that there was a real opportunity to improve the business model in Catholic schools,” said Gregory Geruson, who left a position as vice president of fundraising and alumni relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to become director of CSDP. “To do that, we take the best practices that we see in the high school, independent school and private-school marketplace. We focus on the mission of the school, and then use that to brand and market the school in order to improve, first, enrollment, which is the financial backbone of the school, and second, fundraising, because that enhances whatever money the tuition provides for the school. The goal was to put the school in a position to focus on its Catholic identity and academic excellence so they could not only sustain themselves, but succeed.”

Christine Healey refers to this approach as “ending the candy-bar culture,” in which schools raised money by selling candy bars. Instead, they run a major annual appeal and identify potential major donors. The result thus far has been an average of $150,000 raised per school.

The other two innovations were equally important. First, each school would get an advancement director, employed by the school and dedicated to improving enrollment by actively seeking students, contacting parents and, in essence, “selling” the school.

Second, each school would get a “board of limited jurisdiction,” comprised of 15 to 20 members, with the pastor having only a single vote. This proved more controversial, since pastors routinely have the final say over every aspect of a school’s operation. The structure was put into place to make sure that a pastor couldn’t block arbitrarily an initiative favored by the board and school community. All matters of faith remain in the hands of the pastor, and he is given a means to appeal any decision of the board. Thus, if a pastor finds himself at odds with the board, the issue goes straight to the bishop for remediation.

CSDP’s role in all this is to put the structures in place and act as advisers while the program is built, which takes about three to four years. Once this is done, CSDP pulls out, and the school continues functioning with the new structures in place.

Guardian Angels

The results have thus far been a success. Not only is fundraising up across all schools, but enrollment is rising as well. At Guardian Angels Regional School in Gibbstown, N.J. (grades Pre-K through third), and neighboring Paulsboro, N.J. (grades four through eight), the schools are thriving, and enrollment is nearing capacity.

Sister Jerilyn Einstein, a member of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Infant Jesus, has been principal of the schools since they opened in 2001, and she can see the effects firsthand. “Since we were a growing school,” she said, “there were things we needed to focus on, and it was so much work to raise just $3,000 or $4,000. CSDP gives us a lot of leadership and a lot of good advice.”

The presence of an advancement director, Marcie Voigt, allows Sister Jerilyn to focus on running the school rather than on raising money or finding new students. Asked if CSDP’s emphasis on marketing the school was difficult to accept, she admits that she’s “slowly seeing the need for it. Does it kind of give me an unsettled feeling? It does. For me to run a school, I would just open the doors and say, ‘Come on in,’ but it wouldn’t be successful financially. I see that it’s needed, but there has to be a balance between the two. Now that I don’t have to deal with the money aspect of it, I can still do my part of making it a welcoming community.”

Part of that success comes from providing a faith-based education. “We are a mission of St. Clare Parish,” Sister Jerilyn said, “which means we are included with a lot of the parish activities. We teach religion. Our children attend Mass together at least twice a month. We pray in the morning, at snack, at lunch time, before going home and before each class in the upper grades. Every day during Advent, we gather to light the wreath and pray. There is a strong Catholic identity. That’s what the families want, and we’re very proud of it.”

CSDP offers Sister Jerilyn a chance for her school to grow and compete in a tough academic marketplace. Catholic schools used to never have to search for students: They were right there in the parish. Since that’s no longer the case, CSDP is trying to equip the schools to function in the 21st century. “Parents are making a buying decision,” said Geruson. “They’re making a decision to pay money to send their children to Guardian Angels, and they have to be able to see the value and benefit. And now they can. There are many very good Catholic schools that are failing because they’re just not doing things to bring in new students.”

Camden Bishop Joseph Galante is pleased with the results, praising CSDP for helping the diocese create “an enrollment-management process that has led to enrollment stability and, in some cases, enrollment growth in many of our schools. They’ve also helped our schools implement annual fund programs, helping schools increase giving and broaden their donor base. Our collaborative relationship with CSDP has helped us implement our new board structure through day-long board trainings and evening continuing-education workshops. I am most grateful for their contribution to Catholic school education.”

For Bob Healey, saving these schools is crucial for both the Church and society. “There’s a spiritual culture that is developed and ingrained in these children in a Catholic school as they grow up,” said Healey. “That spiritual culture is an important component of our lives. If you don’t have it — if you don’t have that understanding that there’s a right and a wrong, and there’s a God in heaven who you’re responsible to — you’re lost.”

Thomas L. McDonald is a catechist for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.