by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAVENWORTH — “This is a passion for me,” said Rolly Dessert, board chair at Xavier Grade School here. “I think a Catholic school in a community is such a treasure that we’ve got to find ways to keep it going.”
Because Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann feels the same way, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is taking a proactive approach to making sure Catholic schools, especially those in urban and rural communities, are sustainable into the future.
The School Advancement Program (SAP), headed by Michael and Patty Morrisey, is at the heart of that goal.
“Catholic education is not going to get any cheaper,” said Michael Morrisey. “We’ve got to figure out a way to help parishes support these schools — and we’re not sitting on our hands in this archdiocese.
“We’re looking for better ways to conduct business in our schools, the end result being the sustainability of the schools and increased enrollment.”
Archdiocesan superintendent of schools Vince Cascone is 100% behind the idea.
“I strongly believe that every Catholic diocese in the country should have a School Advancement Program such as we have in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas,” he said. “We are blessed to have wonderful resources such as Patty and Michael Morrisey to work with our schools.”
Karen Hopson, principal of Holy Cross School in Overland Park, knows what the SAP means to struggling schools.
“It’s a game changer,” she said.
Three steps to sustainability
The Morriseys formerly headed the Catholic Education Foundation and so are familiar with the schools in the archdiocese, particularly those challenged financially.
SAP is a three-year process involving three phases of development for the school.
The first phase involves setting up a business team of volunteers from throughout the archdiocese that understands and can help manage the business side of the school.
Phase two includes development and fundraising, and phase three encompasses enrollment management.
All phases of the program are undertaken in cooperation with the principal of the school and the parish pastor, but with a focus on giving them support in business matters, so they can concentrate on the curriculum and spirituality in the school.
The outcome is financial solvency for the school and enrollment growth.
Schools are recommended to take part in SAP through collaboration between the archbishop, the superintendent and the Morriseys.
“We look at every school in the archdiocese every year,” said Morrisey. “So, it’s based on need. That’s really what it comes down to.”
SAP is in its fourth year and now has 10 participating schools: Holy Family, Mater Dei and St. Matthew in Topeka; John Paul II and Holy Cross in Overland Park; Resurrection, Holy Name, Our Lady of Unity and St. Patrick in Kansas City, Kansas; and Xavier in Leavenworth.
A successful launch
Holy Family was one of the first schools to take part in SAP and board chair Dennis Lawlor said it’s been nothing but positives.
The board consists of 17 people chosen specifically to serve on committees that address the needs of the school.
When they invited people to serve on the committee, said Lawlor, it was with some knowledge of the individuals’ professional expertise in mind.
“We went after people with the specific mission to acquire the right talents,” he said.
The SAP program has helped Holy Family clarify its vision and strategically put the efforts of its volunteers behind the things that matter most.
The results have been positive, and Lawlor admits his gratitude for that is a little selfish.
“My wife is a teacher at Hayden High School [in Topeka],” he said. “One of the things [Hayden] needs is more kids coming from the grade schools — that’s what drives their tuition.
“So, our mission is to grow Holy Family, to get a great education for its students and to allow them then to go to Hayden.”
Xavier School has also been on board with SAP from the start.
“There are about 15 of us,” said Dessert. “So, in a collaborative sense, we’re going to get some pretty good ideas once we start having discussions.”
The focus of those discussions is envisioning the future in a way that will enable the school to continue to thrive.
“We anticipate the needs and the requirements that are coming,” said Dessert. “We don’t have the luxury of tax dollars like the public system.
“We have to be looking at financial resources, how we get them and how we ensure good stewardship of those resources.”
Support for principals and pastors
Knowing that the business side of the school is being monitored by business experts allows the principal and pastor to concentrate more effort on curriculum and spirituality.
Cally Dahlstrom was a new principal at Our Lady of Unity when she and pastor Father John Cordes contacted the Morriseys to ask about SAP.
“We knew we needed some help with organization and fundraising,” she said.
In its first year, Our Lady of Unity already has 13 business team members, including Jerry Wonderlich from St. Michael in Leawood.
“Saint Michael is a Companions in Faith [parish] with Our Lady of Unity,” he said. “It’s rewarding to know we’re helping that parish make their school sustainable for the future of Catholic education.
“Each one of us has a little special business background that comes together to help them achieve that goal.”
Dahlstrom and Father Cordes meet with the business team monthly and also meet with several different committees.
“Right now, we’re working on marketing pieces and trying to restructure our vision and mission statements,” said Dahlstrom. “Those are difficult for me to get my hands around, with everything else on my plate as a principal.
“I’m so impressed with the talent that’s being shared with us and so full of gratitude for everything they’re doing for us.”
Hopson has experienced a similar positive outcome with SAP.
“The Morriseys reached out to [pastor] Father Mike [Stubbs] and me,” she said. “They said the school office suggested reaching out to us to see if this would be a fit for our school.”
The Morriseys met monthly with Hopson and Father Stubbs to get to know the workings of the school and determine how it could build a business team.
“I was somewhat apprehensive,” said Father Stubbs. “I didn’t know, for example, if we’d be able to get business team members or not.
“And we have.”
Indeed, business-savvy people who believe in the value of Catholic education and the mission of Holy Cross were interested in supporting the effort.
“They wanted to be a part of seeing the school survive and thrive and grow,” said Hopson.
Father Stubbs has been to the business team meetings and one of the committee meetings concerning development and fundraising. So far, he’s impressed.
“It’s setting some goals for the school,” he said. “The plan is to increase enrollment as well as to reduce the parish investment that goes to the school, so that will help out the parish financially.”
Dahlstrom is already feeling the support of SAP.
“Knowing there’s a group of us that’s working toward this goal has really been a huge blessing,” she said.
“It allows me to focus my priority on the curriculum and the teachers and what’s happening day to day in the building,” she added.