Pittsburgh-area Catholic schools launch an outreach association

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At a time when school choice is hot, one choice that has been around for more than a century has boosted its marketing efforts to get the word out.

Schools in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh have banded together to form the Catholic Schools Network.

"It's a way to let the outside world know what goes on inside the schools," said Susie Gillespie of Upper St. Clair, who is on a diocesan marketing committee and whose six children attended Our Lady of Grace in Scott.

"I think it reaffirms to everyone that value, and it is a value that is worth investing in."

Pat Wood, CEO of the marketing company WMC at Station Square and a volunteer on the marketing effort, said, "The advantage of having a brand is that anytime anyone sees the Catholic Schools Network brand, they'll know it's part of a certain standard we have for all the schools."

This week is the National Catholic Education Association's Catholic Schools Week. Catholic schools throughout the region are hosting activities around the national theme of "Catholic Schools Raise the Standards."

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has about 21,000 students -- including about 3,000 preschoolers -- in 91 schools. That includes 11 high schools, 63 elementary schools and 17 early childhood centers in five of the diocese's six counties.

Enrollment has fallen 25 percent since fall 2006, from a total of 28,000 students in pre-K through 12th grade to the current 21,000 students.

The schools draw students from 97 public school districts, said Robert Paserba, diocesan secretary for Catholic education and evangelization.

About 12 to 14 percent of students in Catholic schools are not Catholic.

And, as a result of school closures and mergers over the years, the remaining Catholic schools draw from a wider area, he said.

As a way to promote the schools, Catholic Schools Network formed in recent months as a voluntary association.

The diocese already had a marketing and communications handbook for the schools, complete with a prayer to "guide those who send out the message."

But now efforts have been stepped up.

While the schools long have used the theme "great beginnings last a lifetime," Mr. Paserba said, "We've always just assumed that people would just simply understand our program and simply choose it for that reason.

"Well, the playing field has changed. There are many different opportunities for parents."

He said families need to know both the individuality and the commonality among Catholic schools.

The Catholic Schools Network is developing a website, www.catholicschools.net.

This month, the group launched a television advertisement campaign on WTAE-TV, featuring 15-second messages from the Catholic Schools Network highlighting faith, character, wisdom and leadership and the slogan, "educating young minds for meaningful lives."

"We're trying to lift all boats, help everyone by explaining the qualities and characteristics that are germane to all of our Catholic schools," said Ron Bowes, diocesan assistant superintendent for public policy and development.

With the ads, Mr. Bowes said, "We're trying to reach a broader audience."

Each month, individual schools also can buy time for 15-second spots. This month, Seton-La Salle Catholic High School in Mt. Lebanon has an ad with the motto, "learn, grow and belong."

In recent years, some of the Catholic high schools have moved to add a president, allowing the principal to focus on day-to-day academics and the president to tend to fundraising, finances and other matters.

Gary Rodgers said that when he arrived as president of Seton-La Salle about three years ago, "We did little to no marketing. What we did do was very ineffective. It was very basic.

"We communicated only with the parents in our feeder schools, but we draw from about 24 different school districts. So we needed to have a greater reach in terms of who we targeted," he said.

He said the most effective way is referrals from families of students who have attended the school, but "you want to reach a lot more people."

The school launched a campaign in the Pittsburgh Catholic and in the Almanac, a small newspaper in the South Hills. It also revamped its website, which he said has attracted families who transferred here. And it publishes ads in some parish bulletins.

The TV campaign, he said, enables the school to spread the message over a wide audience.

"Families have a choice today. This is one of the other reasons why we market. ... You now have cyber school. You have charter schools. In our case, we have a very strong public arena in the South Hills."

In addition, he said, the message is important because today's parents want to be informed.

He said marketing was a "key factor" in improving enrollment, which went from 485 in 2010-11 to 515 this school year.

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Coraopolis plans to have its own TV ad as well.

At the Coraopolis school, Terry O'Rourke Donoghue, who became president in March and is a parent, said enrollment is at a record of 380 students, compared to 358 last year.

Its number of applicants for this fall is higher than it was at the same time last year.

She said the school in recent years has been creating a "more sophisticated admissions and marketing program" that broadens its efforts, including a dedicated admissions office. The school draws from more than 30 public school districts.

She said some people don't realize the once all-girls school has been coed since 1970. That has been harder to miss since the school added a football team two years ago.

Ms. Donoghue said the school has improved the quality of publications aimed at donors, alumni and other supporters; remodeled its website; and surveyed graduates about how the school helped to prepare them.

The school continues to do direct outreach to Catholic elementary schools, hosts several events a year to showcase the school and permits potential applicants to shadow students.

So far, about 60 potential applicants have shadowed students, twice as many as had by this time last year.

Mr. Wood -- who, like his wife and three children, is a product of Catholic schools -- views marketing success as critical.

"I think we have to be successful with the schools because that is the future of what we're doing," he said.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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