LOS ANGELES — After 97 years, Our Lady of Lourdes School was closing — enrollment had dwindled to just 35 children last year at what was once one of the West Coast's biggest Catholic schools.
But with a new principal who knocked on doors, offered X Box video game consoles to kids who brought in a friend, and recruited families who lost their bid in a charter school lottery, the East Los Angeles school stayed open — 132 pupils are registered for this fall.
Call it educational evangelism. Roman Catholic schools are seeing years of marketing efforts starting to pay off in spite of tough competition from charter schools and the lingering effects of a devastating recession.
After seeing years of relentless enrollment decline, several key dioceses across the nation saw students trickle back to their schools over the past year. They say it comes down to a cultural change in Catholic education that has taken a while to implement but is finally taking root.
"If we want to continue to survive, we have to think like a business," said Domenico Pilato, who heads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' school marketing project.
Nationally, Catholic school enrollment is still waning — closing 167 schools and losing 34,000 pupils over the past year. But educators say the number of schools with waiting lists increased by 171 and 34 schools opened.
The archdioceses of Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, which have all employed aggressive marketing programs, have seen student upticks, offering hope the exodus can be turned around on a larger scale.
In Los Angeles, where enrollment had plummeted by more than 2,000 students a year for the past decade, elementary enrollment increased by 300 students last year. In Boston, the decline slowed to a 20-year low of 1 percent. Chicago, the nation's largest diocesan school system, saw city elementary enrollment increase by 8 percent.
Smaller dioceses also report gains. In Lafayette, Ind., where two schools closed in 2009, 300 new kids enrolled and plans are afoot to open an elementary school. Bridgeport, Conn., reported a 5 percent enrollment jump.
"Catholic schools are beginning to market and promote themselves," said Shane Martin, dean of education at Loyola Marymount University. "It's really about getting the word out about this option. People don't know much about it."
Schools realized the need to start marketing more aggressively some years ago, but it's been a slow shift in a conservative environment that historically never had to advertise itself.
In Los Angeles, some high school principals reluctant to take on marketing duties had to be replaced, said Monsignor Sabato Pilato, superintendent of high schools, who is Domenico's brother.
"Something different had to happen," the monsignor said.
Margaret Dames, superintendent of Bridgeport's Catholic schools, said she went through a personal learning curve. "I wasn't used to marketing," she said. "We're getting better at it."
It's a far cry from the 1960s when Catholic families flocked to parochial schools staffed mainly by priests and nuns, who earned a pittance and were renowned for wielding rulers to rap knuckles and check skirt length. Catholic school enrollment hit a high of 5.2 million in 13,000 schools during that decade.
These days, enrollment stands around 2 million in 6,800 schools that cost more to run. With religious vocations attracting few entrants, lay teachers staff 97 percent of classrooms and schools must cope with payroll, pensions and health insurance.
In more recent years, charter schools, which are autonomous publicly funded schools, have also siphoned off students in urban neighborhoods where Catholic schools once catered to European immigrants and then carved out a niche with minority pupils. Some charters even adopt uniforms resembling parochial plaids.
The rise of charters, in turn, has caused public schools to get more competitive with specialties such as magnets, small learning communities, performing arts and language programs.
"Charter schools have affected traditional public schools and private schools, particularly Catholic schools," Martin said. "There's more competition and choice than ever before."
Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, schools superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago, pointed to charters' main advantage over her schools: "The attraction is clearly the freebie."
Catholic school tuition averages $3,700 for elementary grades, and $8,100 for secondary, although many students receive financial aid and fees only pay for about 75 percent of costs. The tab is rounded out by the church and donations.
But Catholic educators say their philosophy of coupling solid academics with moral values yields superior results: 99 percent of students graduate and 85 percent go to college, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. The challenge has been touting those accomplishments in a tradition that values humility.
"Catholic schools have been reluctant to tell their story. It seems like boasting," said Karen Ristau, association president. "We're not particularly boasters."
That's changing. Schools have formed volunteer marketing committees, with some like Chicago and Bridgeport paying $2,500 stipends to parents who take on formal duties.
Los Angeles has one of the more sophisticated programs, which Pilato launched at the behest of his brother, who became alarmed when secondary enrollment sagged by 750 students in 2008.
Domenico Pilato, who had worked in city government outreach projects, organized each archdiocese high school to appoint a parent volunteer team to develop a marketing plan and taught them how to do it.
Now, those schools are required to employ a fulltime marketing director, employees undergo training in everything from social media to customer service, and the initiative has expanded to elementary schools.
Schools sponsor socials with preschool directors, real estate agents, and Spanish-speaking parents, and partner with youth organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and Little Leagues to host events. Kids in catechism classes get a spring break camp at a Catholic school, while parents who bring babies for baptism get a flood of information.
To compete academically, schools offer new programs with iPads, Mandarin Chinese and even a film and media school in Hollywood, as well as a 200-day school year. Most public schools have 180 days
"This is the first year we have not closed a school," said Kevin Baxter, Archodiocese of Los Angeles elementary superintendent. "People are seeing the value."
Still, schools in other places are struggling. In San Diego, where two schools have closed in as many years, Our Lady's School hovers on the brink. The school has 273 pre K-8 students, but most are low-income and cannot pay full tuition.
School President Noel Bishop tried coupons on the back of supermarket receipts. A teacher wore a sandwich-board to advertise an open house. The Virgin of Guadalupe was even incorporated in the school logo to appeal to Mexican-Americans. But the efforts, plus donations and a diocese emergency loan, have not closed the gap.
"We're trying to be forward thinking but we've seen a lot of families lose their jobs," he said.
At Our Lady of Lourdes in East Los Angeles, which back in the 1940s schooled 1,000 pupils, Principal Cori Marasco's latest hook to reel in more pre K-8 students is turning an auditorium into an indoor basketball court, paid for by foundation donations. It's part of her plan to make the school a community center in the impoverished, gang-plagued neighborhood.
"The park is known for drive-by shootings so kids don't have a place to go," she said. "They can come here — and enroll in school, too."
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