St. John Vianney Catholic School, located just west of Phoenix in Goodyear, Arizona, is a member of the third cohort of ACE’s Latino Enrollment Institute at Notre Dame. Established under the leadership of Fr. Joe Corpora, CSC, who now serves as the Director of University-School Partnerships and the Catholic School Advantage Campaign, the school once boasted a large and continuously growing student enrollment.
Similar to many Catholic schools around the country, however, St. John Vianney began experiencing some challenges maintaining enrollment in recent years. After several consecutive years seeing numbers drop off, Pastor Fr. Tom Eckert, C.S.C., resolved to reverse this trend.
At the Home and School Association meeting in May 2013, Fr. Tom, who had been Pastor of St. John Vianney Parish since 2011, pledged to personally bring in 20 new students for the upcoming school year. He challenged the parents at that meeting to do the same. Fr. Tom knew that with an additional 40 students, the school would be in a much more stable position.
Fr. Tom’s pledge was bolstered by the parish’s strongest marketing tool, the pulpit, as well as the addition of new school leadership in Doug Weivoda, the new principal, and Christine Tax, the new assistant principal. The pastoral leadership, which also included Fr. Paul Ybarra, C.S.C., a graduate of ACE Teaching Fellows and former teacher at St. John Vianney, spoke at all of the Masses about School Tuition Organizations (STOs) and Arizona’s robust scholarship tax credit program. This option meant that a Catholic education was indeed “available, affordable, and attainable."
Mr. Weivoda and Mrs. Tax made it a priority to assist both new and returning families in identifying and applying for outside financial aid opportunities, and began by compiling a list of all available STOs. They provided bilingual volunteers during the application season to assist parents in filling out online and paper applications and worked to consolidate tuition and any additional fees in order to limit the out-of-pocket expenses that families might incur.”
St. John Vianney School’s market base has always been its parish, a predominantly Latino community with 600-700 children in the religious education program each year. Throughout their campaign to increase enrollment, Fr. Tom and Fr. Paul announced enrollment updates each week, and as RE parents regularly heard about the school at Mass and in RE parent meetings, the parish as a whole became active and excited stakeholders in the school’s growth.
Additionally, through divine providence—an important tenet of Holy Cross priests’ spirituality— Fr. Tom stumbled upon an unexpected form of fundraising. After a parishioner dropped off apricots from a local farm, he decided to bake two pies and sell them after Mass. The money from these pies was intended to cover the registration fee for new students whose families were in need of financial assistance. These pies were quickly snapped up, so Fr. Tom kept baking. Three months later, he had baked over 50 pies and had raised over $8,000. And more than just the additional scholarship money that Fr. Tom’s unexpected culinary endeavor generated, it got new families in the door. What made them stay was the consistent message that through adherence to the financial aid process, a Catholic education was indeed possible.
Throughout that summer, family after family came through St. John Vianney’s doors. Mr. Weivoda and Mrs. Tax worked with every family to ensure that they could indeed afford to send their children to the school. “I will tell you that the parents that were the most reticent because of the cost are some of the happiest here today,” says Weivoda.
Despite this enrollment growth, the team at St. John Vianney didn’t stop there. The following summer, Mr. Weivoda and Mrs. Tax attended the Latino Enrollment Institute at Notre Dame to learn additional strategies and best practices for Latino recruitment and enrollment.
Today enrollment is just shy of 300 and continuing to grow. The school is currently 84% Latino, and since the 2012-13 school year, total enrollment has increased by 50%, and Latino enrollment has increased by 68%.
St. John Vianney's story is a true testament to the vitality and growth that can result from a committed pastor and school leadership working together to embrace the opportunity―and indeed the urgency―to reach out to and welcome Latino families into Catholic schools. “Our future relies on the success of the relationship between our school and our Latino population,” says Weivoda, “and the LEI has been an important component in achieving this.”