Catholic Parish & School Advocate and Strategist
President & CEO of Development Innovations 360 Focusing on Catholic Parish, School and Diocesan Vitality & Growth
by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Tell us about your own education and how that assisted you in becoming an advocate for Catholic schools.
Bernard: As a lifelong Catholic, raised in a large family in South Louisiana, faith and family form the two primary influences that guide all aspects of life. From elementary school, through post graduate work, the role of Catholic education, and its focus on morality, supernatural vision and divine anthropology has shaped my every thought, action and deed.
My strong advocacy for Catholic schools is based on the ability for this special learning environment to function as the greatest evangelization tool for the Church.
As a parishioner, Catholic school parent and professional, I have been able to humbly serve Catholic schools and translate my gifts and talents into true collaboration and transformative change.
Dr. Knight: It seems that as part of the pandemic, parents are taking seriously their role as the primary religious educator of their children. How have you seen this manifest in your schools?
Bernard: I think this is the proper role as Catholic parents – the primary religious educators for our children. We must think of Catholic schools in partnership with our parents and the church parish as the collaborative force – in cooperation with God’s grace – to share in the formation of the child – and family.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the leadership challenges you have seen in the past five years or so?
Bernard: As I have identified in the Seven Circles of Catholic Vitality – A Framework for Growth and Sustainability, the leaders of Catholic schools today face three primary challenges: 1) Financial Stability 2) Marketplace Competition and 3) Enrollment Growth. The cost of Catholic education continues to rise, there are more educational options, including homeschooling, than ever before and parents, who are consumer-centric are making educational decisions based on perceived product benefits and features. Thus, Catholic schools are having to compete in a crowded educational marketplace, heavily dependent on branding and marketing. While we have a great story of success, with test scores and accolades, the challenge remains on telling the story of faith and values.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the academic and technology issues you are facing in your schools?
Bernard: In terms of academics, the performance of Catholic schools is unparalleled, with a strong history of performance distinction. However, there is a movement to move beyond the singular focus on the college preparatory curriculum and offer various forms of study. The emergence of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – in educational circles has demanded that Catholic schools create the equivalent and expanded version for our schools. In recent months, due to the impact of COVID-19 on classroom learning, Catholic schools have transitioned very well to distance learning and virtual platforms. The concern here is the ability to serve low-income or urban populations that require new equipment and access to secure internet services.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the financial issues that are present at this time in the history of Catholic schools?
Bernard: Historically, Catholic schools relied heavily on contributions from the parish and the commitment and dedication of religious orders to financially support the operational needs. While this model worked well through the 1970’s, today, most Catholic schools struggle with an unsustainable financial future. With tuition being the primary source of revenue (up to 80%), Catholic schools are still not covering the cost to educate each child. Over the years, as we attempt to keep pace with our educational counterparts, salaries have steadily increased, along with insurance and building maintenance. Thus, the dependency on fundraising has increased – with parents being the primary target for appeals and solicitations. One of my main advocacy areas for Catholic schools is working with diocesan leaders and administrators to secure new and sustainable sources of revenue beyond tuition and fundraising. We must be open to school choice programs, tax credits, corporate grants, community partnerships, alumni and philanthropic support. I am currently working with several dioceses to create a Catholic school system approach, organized in geographical locations, supported by every parish in the region and working collaboratively on finances, shared services, marketing, enrollment, facilities and governance. I am so pleased that this is a movement in our church and that local bishops and clergy see the need to explore new models of Catholic education.
Dr. Knight: What effect/affect has enrollment decline had on your schools in general?
Bernard: Enrollment as the heartbeat of the Catholic school is my most pressing concern. The decline in Catholic school enrollment should concern every Catholic. When we lose a Catholic school anywhere, it is a threat to Catholic schools everywhere. It is not only a loss for the evangelizing mission of the Catholic Church, it is a threat to humanity and the teaching of divine morals and values. This threat is most apparent in urban Catholic schools, where much more diligence is required to secure the necessary funding, leadership and teaching services that allow this ministry to come to life. For years now, I have been calling for a transformation in the way we think about Catholic schools. We must understand that we operate in a competitive marketplace and this requires the ability to reach people with our message of spirituality, academic success and distinction. We must focus on being schools of vitality – and then creating an intentional and professional marketing strategy.
Dr. Knight: What have you done to allay some of the fears that parents have in regard to enrollment and finances?
Bernard: In every community, Catholic schools are doing an amazing job. The first group of parents that need to look at the benefits of a Catholic education is the registered parishioner family. In the surveys that I have conducted, the most common barrier with this group is cost. To address this, every parish should offer higher levels of tuition assistance and scholarships, supported by all parishioner families. Parishioner families with school-age children who want a Catholic education deserve a Catholic education. I also recommend that the parish should be very engaged in the life of the local Catholic school. Parishioners should be invited to serve in volunteer leadership positions, offer input and join in the mission of the Catholic school.
Dr. Knight: How has the societal culture affected the Catholic schools?
Bernard: In many ways, our Catholic parishes and schools are fighting the norms of societal culture that displays the spoils of moral relativism, unchecked consumerism and unconstrained individualism. In defiance of these social norms, the Catholic school is presented with a challenge and wonderful opportunity. For this mission and ministry, there can be no compromise or capitulation. Our most distinguishing characteristic is our Catholic identity and the ability to form students in the morals and values of a loving God. We must be ever-vigilant in providing ongoing formation to our Catholic school leaders, faculty and staff on traditional and proper catechesis that promotes a life of faithful sacrifice, self-discipline and service to humanity. This remains our mission and purpose.
Dr. Knight: What solutions do you see for collapsing Catholic schools?
Bernard: In working in partnership with many schools, I have created the framework for success entitled the Seven Circles of Catholic School Vitality. The seven areas are: 1) Visionary Leadership 2) Strong Catholic Identity & Mission 3) Financial Stability 4) Quality Academics 5) Effective Marketing & Communication
6) Strategic Enrollment Growth and 7) Vibrant Student Life. While all seven areas are important and there are numerous vitality strategies associated with each, Visionary Leadership can have the greatest and most profound impact on a Catholic school. Today’s Catholic school leader must possess many talents and skills, in particular being a model of Catholic values with an unwavering commitment to the mission of true Catholic education. Another area that must be addressed with zeal and innovation is Financial Stability. If the Catholic school abdicates its fiscal responsibility, the mission ceases to exist. In many Catholic schools, there is a need to completely transform this area with best practices, cost-based tuition budgeting and less dependency on parent fundraising. A third area that requires a professional and deliberate process is Effective Marketing and Communication. For too long, Catholic schools have been humble in regards to their success. It is time to tell this story of success with boldness, conviction and love. Every Catholic school should maintain a responsive website, execute a daily Communication Plan that includes several social media and digital platforms and build a staff of professionals to attract new families to the school and build enrollment.
Dr. Knight: How do we make our Catholic schools filled with vitality and distinction so that the parents feel this is the only place I want my students to go.
Bernard: One of the concepts I utilize in my Catholic school leadership workshops is the Law of Attraction, which is… You must be attractive in order to attract others. Thus, the path to achieving vitality and distinction is delivering on the promise of doing these four items very well: 1) We offer a safe and secure learning environment 2) We are a Catholic School of Moral and Values 3) We provide Academic Excellence with Impressive Faculty and Staff 4) We care deeply for the Community and are Committed to Service and Social Justice. We must also mobilize a group as School Ambassadors, who are trained and activated to engage with parish and community stakeholders. When we do these well, and deliver on this promise, we become attractive to parents and this builds vitality and sustainability.
Dr. Knight: How do you increase the number of stakeholders in the Catholic system? How do you get the parents to understand the mission of your school?
Bernard: As stated in the Seven Circles of Catholic School Vitality, in order to engage stakeholders, you must have a Communication Plan that is strategic, intentional and deliberate. We must tell our story each and every day – of success, Catholic values and excellence. In keeping with an effective marketing effort, we must formally invite people to serve in volunteer leadership positions that assist in the various functions of operational vitality. These important stakeholders take ownership of the school can truly advance the mission and ministry. Each year, every Catholic school invite, involve and engage 50-100 new people to participate in its vibrant life, mission and ministry.
Dr. Knight: How is the religious faith and prayer encouraged in the schools?
Bernard: As a major component in the Catholic school curriculum, faith and prayer play a major role in the daily life of faculty, staff and students. When I think of Catholic School Vitality, this area of faith formation is taken very seriously. I have witnessed a commitment to daily Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, student prayer groups, parish volunteerism, youth groups, pro-life activities, prayer chains, disaster relief efforts and many other displays of faith. Strong religious education is at the heart of Catholic education.
In recent surveys, it has been shown that Catholic school graduates are more like to have a prayer life and attend church regularly. They are also more likely to vote, get involved in social advocacy and contribute to charitable causes.
FINAL THOUGHT: While Catholic schools face formidable challenges, I remain an optimistic warrior in the fight for educational growth and vitality. I see great promise and commitment in our Catholic school leaders who see the value of being collaborators, innovators and models of a steadfast Catholic faith. We must continually strive to come together, united by our common mission, and by the Grace of God and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, transform lives. We are CATHOLIC STRONG!