Visitation Catholic School fights for its future
EAST HARRIET – On a bright, early March morning, Principal Dan Gleason is playing quarterback on the playground at Visitation Catholic School on Lyndale Avenue at 45th Street.
Gleason distributes his passes evenly among a dozen uniformed boys and girls scrambling around the snow-covered parking lot. He raises his arms and shouts “Touchdown!” whenever one of the giggling youngsters carries the ball all the way to a chain-link fence.
When the bell rings Gleason follows the children indoors, hangs up his coat and heads to the third-floor classroom where he teaches world history to 7th and 8th graders. The class is tiny; just seven students sit with Gleason around a low table.
Visitation, as a whole, is tiny. Only 57 students enrolled this year in kindergarten through 8th grade. For the school, its size is both a blessing and a burden.
It can market small classes – many with as few as 10 students – as an alternative to Southwest’s crowded public school classrooms. But those small classrooms also mean less tuition revenue.
The Church of the Visitation, nestled within the school building, has an aging congregation with a diminished ability to contribute financially to the school. That compounds the problem of declining enrollment, a trend many urban Catholic schools face.
As it prepares for its 60th anniversary this year, the small school faces a huge challenge: raising $75,000-$150,000 each year over the next five years.
Visitation’s story is not necessarily unique among the schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“Demographics show that the number of (Catholic school) students, period, is declining,” said Luke Bearth, the archdiocese’s director of personnel planning for faith formation and schools.
Bearth said the decline is most acute in urban areas. Catholic schools in some suburban cities like Woodbury, Shakopee and Chanhassen are actually growing, he said.
In its study of enrollment trends for the 2005–2006 school year, the National Catholic Education Association reported that urban and inner-city schools still account for more than 43 percent of a Catholic schools nationwide. But many struggle with population declines and financial difficulties.
Across the nation, as in the Twin Cities, the total number of Catholic Schools has declined in recent decades. Most new schools are being built in the suburbs.
Tom Schuster, a trustee of Church of the Visitation, insisted the school was in no danger of closing. “We saw this coming,” he said.
About five years ago, the parish identified several trends. One was declining enrollment, which today stands at about half what it was in the mid-1990s. Another was the changing financial status of the church’s aging congregation, many of whom are living on fixed incomes.
At the same time, demographics at the school shifted.
Midway between Lake Harriet and Interstate 35W, the school is near neighborhoods of both poverty and luxury.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve had a larger and larger percentage of children come here from poorer families,” Gleason said. And they were welcomed.
“Philosophically, it’s something that the school and the parish want to do,” he said.
But that philosophy has a significant cost. While 10 years ago a “very small percentage” of families required tuition assistance, between 20 and 25 percent of students now get some aid, Gleason said.
Annual tuition starts at $3,600 for parish families and $5,200 for families from outside of the parish. Families with more than one child at the school pay a discounted rate.
The school budgeted for about $200,000 in tuition revenue this year, but nearly a quarter of that will be paid in tuition assistance.
Schuster said a part of their plan to turn things around was to become “more of a South Minneapolis school,” meaning a school that attracts students from all area families, not just Catholics.
“If we get people in the door, they don’t leave,” Schuster said. But, he added, there’s a catch: “I think our biggest problem is people don’t know we’re here.”
They also have to distinguish themselves from nearby public elementary schools like Burroughs and Lake Harriet community schools, among the most highly regarded programs in the city.
“It’s been one of our marketing challenges we have yet to successfully solve,” Gleason said. The question school and parish leaders are asking is: What is our niche?
The answer may be small class sizes. A recent billboard campaign used the slogan “Small Classes, Big Results.”
Still, raising enrollment is a long-range goal. In the short term, they must also raise funds.
Gleason said the school does not have a “big track record” for fund drives of this size. But last year, they sent an appeal to school alumni and were able to bring in $85,000 in about two months. This new campaign will also target alumni, who Gleason and Schuster see as a largely untapped resource.
In the past, Gleason said, the school had three main sources of income: tuition; its parish subsidy; and various annual fundraisers, such as the fall marathon. Alumni fundraising will make up a new, fourth category of income, also expected to include giving from community groups and businesses, as well as gifts from wills or estates.
The Wika family is determined to see Visitation succeed in that fundraising.
Toianna and Jim Wika brought their family to St. Paul from Fort Pierce, Fla., in August 2005. They were fleeing both the destruction of the 2004 hurricane season and a miserable experience in Florida schools.
In early August 2004, Hurricane Charley struck the state’s west coast, drifting north of the Fort Pierce. But in September, hurricanes Frances and Jeanne scored direct hits on the coastal city.
“After Jeanne, I just threw everybody in the car and we left,” Jim Wika said.
The Wikas spent their last few months in the state living in a hotel. But it was around that time Toianna Wika ran into an old friend – Dale Ahlquist, president of The American Chesterton Society, a Minneapolis organization that promotes the works of the British-born Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. Ahlquist suggested the Wika’s bring their children to Minnesota, and specifically to Visitation.
The Wikas moved to St. Paul in August of 2005, settling in a home near Como Park. On, Alquist’s recommendation, they enrolled Joseph, 6, and Toini, who is about to turn 13, at Visitation.
“It’s not just a matter of choosing small schools,” Toianna Wika said.
She was also drawn to the school because Ahlquist praised its high academic standards.
Ahlquist, who sent his children to the archdiocese’s schools, said long ago he noticed many of the best-prepared high school students came from Visitation.
“It would be a real loss to the community” if it closed, he said.
A strategic planning team assembled by the parish recommended in March to continue the school with stronger support from parishioners. A letter to Visitation parents warned that the road ahead would be difficult and that a long-term plan would not be approved by the archdiocese until sometime this month.
Gleason said it was 30 years ago when he came to the Twin Cities looking for a job and spotted the opening at Visitation. Even then, a friend warned him not to apply at the school. “He said, ‘Don’t apply there. It’s a dying school.’”
Three decades later the school still lives.
“We do every year say, ‘Can we continue to afford the school?” Gleason said.
The answer, so far, has been “Yes.”