Students at St. Joseph School in Penfield looked like they were taking midterm exams, but they were actually working on "learning celebrations," according to Felician Sister Christina Marie Luczynski.
She used the euphemism with sincerity, rather than irony.
"We want the children to celebrate all they know," Sister Luczynski said.
During the past year, St. Joseph School also has undergone testing as it adapted to a major change in how it operates. In July 2010, both St. Joseph and St. Lawrence School in Greece became parish-run after more than a decade of being run by the Diocese of Rochester.
For most of their history, nearly all Catholic elementary schools in the diocese were operated by the parishes at which they were located. In 1988 schools in Monroe County began to collaborate as part of a county-quadrant system, but Catholic elementary schools in the diocese’s other 11 counties remained parish-run. In 1994 the diocese assumed full operation of what had evolved into the Monroe County Catholic School System. The Monroe County School Board oversaw the system, setting schools’ tuition, cost-per-pupil expenditures and parish subsidies. The diocese also processed tuition payments, hired personnel, and handled purchasing and other administrative duties.
By 2007, drops in school enrollment and budget deficits led Bishop Matthew H. Clark to convene the Catholic Schools Task Force, which recommended closing 13 schools in 2008 and returning all schools to parish control. Based on positive results from St. Lawrence and St. Joseph, a new diocesanwide school board appointed in September 2010 recommended late last year that St. Louis in Pittsford, St. John Neumann in Rochester, St. Pius Tenth in Chili, St. Rita in Webster and Seton Catholic in Brighton return to parish operation in the fall of 2011, and that Irondequoit’s Christ the King do so in the fall of 2012.
Students at the schools returning to parish operation shouldn’t expect to see many changes, noted Marie Ludington, St. Joseph’s educational-technology coordinator.
"Nothing’s changed in the classrooms," she said.
Yet behind the scenes, major administrative changes have been made, including allowing parishes to register students, collect tuition, set their own tuition rates, create budgets and pay the bills. The diocesan schools office continues to oversee textbook selection and curriculum, communication with the New York state education department, academic assessments, professional development and personnel, and marketing of Catholic schools as a whole.
Father Jim Schwartz, pastor of St. Joseph, Penfield, explained that the $400,000 subsidy the parish previously sent to the Monroe County Catholic School System is now directly being used for the school.
Yet St. Joseph has experienced a revenue shortfall of about $75,000 because the diocese is earmarking more money from parish collections for financial aid for needy students, he said. The school and parish have covered the shortfall by establishing an annual gala fundraiser, an annual gift-giving campaign for alumni and a nonprofit fundraising foundation, Father Schwartz said. The result has been greater financial support of the school from the parish community, he noted.
"(Parish control has) led to a greater sense of ownership by the parish and the school family," he said. "It’s really been a plus from that point of view."
St. Lawrence School Principal Susan Sak said strengthening the bond between the parish and school may have helped St. Lawrence parishioners feel more comfortable about volunteering at the school. Additionally the school has seen an increase in financial-aid donations from parishioners.
"The parishioners can see how they are helping the children here," Sak said. "They would like to see the St. Lawrence tradition continue."
Although the Catholic Schools Office will continue to promote Catholic schools throughout the diocese through such efforts as a new television ad released in January, officials at the newly parish-run schools also are honing their marketing skills.
For instance, a school supporter recently designed a new logo for St. Joseph School that incorporates a cross, a heart and the school’s tagline — A Place with Heart — to replace the previous logo of children circling the globe. Sister Luczynski said the school opted for the redesign to emphasize its faith traditions.
Although the goal is to let parents know that the school is authentically Catholic, academic achievement is a key part of that message, she said.
"If you are a good, faithful Catholic, you are going to strive for excellence in every endeavor," she said.
St. Lawrence’s primary form of marketing has been word of mouth among parents, Sak said. She noted that testimonials from other parents have proved to be very motivating for prospective parents.
"(The prospective parents) see and feel the very high level of support from parents," she said.
Enrollment figures bear out that assertion. St. Lawrence has 244 students enrolled this year, as compared to 225 last year. Although the enrollment increase has led to some larger classes, the school has been able to hire teaching assistants for each class and to increase the hours of a school counselor position, Sak said.
Enrollment at St. Joseph’s declined slightly over the past year, from 394 to 381, but Sister Luczynski said the difference may be attributable to economic factors beyond the school’s control.
"We had a number of students move out of town unexpectedly," Sister Luczynski said. "The economy in New York state is very difficult."
Officials at both schools say their parishes are committed to ensuring tuition is not an obstacle for students.
"The parish believes no one should be denied a Catholic education due to money," Sak said.