Three Simple Words Bring About Extraordinary Growth at Phoenix Catholic School
“Available, affordable, and accessible.” There isn’t a staff or faculty member at St. Vincent de Paul School in Phoenix, Arizona, who hasn’t practiced saying this phrase. As principal, Sr. Julie Kubasak, D.C., made sure that this message was consistently communicated by each and every member of her team, so that all families who desired a Catholic education for their children knew that St. Vincent de Paul School could provide that opportunity.
Sr. Julie, who served as the school’s principal for eight years, from 2007 to 2015, is a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and has over 25 years of experience in education. She has also served as a mentor principal for ACE’s Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) since the program’s inception in 2012.
When Sr. Julie first began at St. Vincent de Paul, she received what she refers to as a “wake-up call.” Seeing hundreds of unfamiliar children’s faces in the pews at the parish’s Sunday Spanish Mass—a Mass that she quickly learned requires an early arrival in order to get in the door, let alone get a seat—prompted her to ask families if they had ever thought about sending their children to St. Vincent de Paul School.
Being in a predominantly low-income, Hispanic neighborhood, perception of the school was one of the biggest obstacles Sr. Julie and her team had to overcome. She quickly discovered that many families had never even considered the school an option because they assumed that it was not affordable. In fact, some of the parish families weren’t even aware of the school’s existence, even though the church is surrounded by the school. As Sr. Julie and her staff worked to dispel many of the misconceptions and misinformation about the affordability of a Catholic education, more families started coming.
“We realized that we had to get the message out—not only about our school, but about our mission to make Catholic education available, affordable, and accessible,” says Sr. Julie. These three words truly became the mantra of the school’s staff, and everyone communicated this same message to prospective families, whether it was the secretary, a teacher, or the school custodian. “That’s something we’ve been committed to all along, but people didn’t know it. It’s a charism of who we are as Daughters of Charity. It’s a charism of the mission of Catholic education, to reach out and make it possible,” she says.
Promoting the school at Sunday Mass became part of Sr. Julie's regular routine, but she notes that new families really started coming into the school when parents began spreading the word. “It became even more compelling when of our parents spoke at the Masses. Typical testimonials might begin, ‘It’s true. I never thought my kids could go here, but I have three students at the school and I love it and here’s why.”
Today, St. Vincent de Paul has reached a point where the majority of the school's marketing is simply word-of-mouth. The school is almost entirely Latino, so the relationships that Sr. Julie and her staff have built with the families have a tremendous impact—with the early adopters going out and inviting their friends and their families to consider the school.
Since 2008, St. Vincent de Paul has experienced enrollment gains of more than ten percent each year. When Sr. Julie first began as principal, enrollment was just under 300 students. Today, enrollment has more than doubled, and four additional classrooms have been added to accommodate the school’s growing enrollment.
“The whole process has never been solely about bringing up our numbers,” says Sr. Julie. “It’s about being true to our mission and being true to the mission of Catholic education. As we did what we needed to do to be welcoming and inviting, it just happened.” Now, with 658 students already registered for the upcoming school year, St. Vincent de Paul School has again met and exceeded their enrollment goals for the seventh consecutive year.
One major change in store for this year, however, is that Sr. Julie will no longer lead the school as its principal. She recently began service as a provincial administrator for her community but will remain very involved with the school. Sr. Julie’s role on her province’s Leadership Team will now allow her to have an even broader impact as she works with ten schools co-sponsored by the Daughters of Charity throughout California and Arizona. She will also continue to serve as a mentor principal for the Latino Enrollment Institute, helping other schools adopt similar practices to better reach out to and serve Latino children.
The school’s dramatic enrollment gains have prompted a slightly modified administrative structure, now being led by a director, who will work hand in hand with the principal. Sr. Cabrini Thomas, D.C., the school’s new director, has decades of experience serving in Catholic schools as both a teacher and an administrator. She will work closely with the new principal, Mr. Enrique Diaz, who served as the school’s assistant principal for seven years, and thus knows the momentum of the school. “I have no doubts that St. Vincent de Paul is in great hands!”, says Sr. Julie.
Transformational school leaders are far more than administrators. The way the entire staff and faculty at St. Vincent de Paul have worked together to build a sustainable school culture of academic excellence and inclusion, testifies to the impact that Sr. Julie has had. Those three words that have guided the school’s messaging to families desiring a Catholic education—available, affordable, and accessible—are so ingrained in the school’s mission that there is little doubt that St. Vincent de Paul will continue to thrive and touch the lives of countless children who never thought a Catholic education could be possible.