How one Catholic school transitioned from debt and decline to thriving community
By Karen Walker
After nearly 20 years serving as a teacher and then vice principal at the mid-to-lower income, blue-collar school she had attended as a child, Mary Pat Donoghue entered St. Jerome’s door as its new principal in July 2009.
The remarkable transformation that took place at St. Jerome’s in Hyattsville, a once-unremarkable school tucked away on the wrong side of the D.C. beltway, can happen anywhere. The secret is to follow the same road map as St. Jerome from beginning to end — no shortcuts.
Prior to becoming principal, Mary Pat knew enrollment was down. Ten years earlier, the school boasted an enrollment of 562 students. Now it attracted barely 280. The decline had been attributed to schools in wealthier areas attracting more parents, along with a growing perception that Catholic schools were not worth the financial sacrifice. But that was it. No one even considered the possibility that something else was causing the decline.
The reality, however, was that St. Jerome’s was more than $500,000 in debt, with an annual deficit of $170,000 and no solution in sight.
It took a note from the archdiocese to begin the transformation. St. Jerome’s was on the chopping block. Registration would stop until a viable plan was presented. Regular meetings with the archdiocese were scheduled. Donoghue and Fr. Jim Stack, the pastor, were given a powerful and practical roadmap to follow.
The first step required facing the full truth about the school’s dire situation, right down to the exact debt amount, the true deficit, the accurate cost per student vs. subsidies and tuition, and the tipping point of decline. Step two was even more daunting: to have brutally honest meetings with all stakeholders (parishioners, families, teachers, and the wider community located within the parish boundaries) to determine the viability of continuing the school.
The stakeholder meetings
“November 2, 2009, the Feast of All Souls, was a horrible day,” recalls Donoghue. “At 3 p.m. we met with faculty and staff. At 6 p.m. we met with the governing boards of the parish and the school. And at 7:30 p.m. we met with parents, parishioners, and the wider Hyattsville community.”
Dr. Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill was superintendent at the Archdiocese of Washington at the time. “I remember Fr. Stack getting up to talk, with standing room only in the church,” she recounts. “The fact that Fr. Stack was willing to stand up and say, ‘We have a problem and here’s what it is. We have a mission. We need to have everyone help us recommit,’ was remarkable.
“Fr. Stack delivered a compelling, impassioned talk about the mission of the school, its impact on the future of the Church and society, and on the formation of the leaders of tomorrow,” Weitzel-O’Neill says. “He was very clear in articulating the mission of the school. He challenged the parents in the audience, asking them why they weren’t sending their children to this school.”
“You can’t have a solid vision unless you have a very clear, well-defined mission,” says Dr. Weitzel-O’Neill. Vision and mission are not the same. A school’s vision reflects the path it will take to execute its mission. St. Jerome’s had a clear, well-defined mission statement. That made a big difference in everything they achieved.
The large crowd in the church that night indicated school stakeholders had something to say. But absolutely no one expected what it would be.
After listening intently to Father Stack’s presentation, one by one, attendees stood up and spoke. Even more waited in a long line afterward to talk with pastor, principal, or superintendent.
All echoed the same theme.
They did not think the secular model of education being used at St. Jerome’s was worth the financial sacrifice to send their children there.
Instead, they wanted a deeply Catholic curriculum, one that reflected the rich wisdom and heritage of Catholic teaching over the past 2,000 years. They sought a curriculum that would profoundly shape tomorrow’s Catholic leaders to be well-anchored in the fullness and depth of their faith.
“We discovered that enrollment and financial problems were a result, not the cause, of our problem,” says Mary Pat. “We discovered the true cause of our problem was not the lure of Catholic schools in wealthier neighborhoods or a lack of interest in Catholic schools. Those were false but easy ways to explain away our dire situation.
“The reality,” she continues, “was that the curriculum at St. Jerome’s was not vibrantly, authentically Catholic. It was not classical. Instead its curriculum was very much secular, with ‘Catholic’ tacked on. Once we truly identified the cause of the school’s decline, now we could address it. It is so important — critical — to accurately identify the real issue!”
Several weeks after the meeting, the superintendent called Mary Pat into her office.
Donoghue recalls, “Dr. Weitzel-O’Neill told me that if St. Jerome’s offered a classical Catholic education, we’d have a waiting list in three years.”
She was right.
“I’d always been drawn to classical education but never even remotely thought it would work here,” Donoghue notes. “When I heard the superintendent’s words, I felt it was the chance of a lifetime to go forward.”
Fr. Stack agreed. “At the meeting I learned that the congregation had a great love for the truths of the Church and wanted them taught, and taught well,” he says. “Here was a new, younger group of parents who wanted to see a classical curriculum for their Catholic school. What they wanted was similar to my education in the seminary; it’s the best-kept secret in the Catholic Church! I was very uplifted that they wanted something along these lines.
“We had a choice whether to watch the school close or do something different,” Fr. Stack continues. “I’m so glad we chose to listen and do something different.”
A new action plan
The decision to radically change the curriculum at St. Jerome’s into a richly Catholic, classical education dictated a new action plan for the next six to eight months.
Donoghue pulled together a curriculum committee whose members were selected for their expertise in key aspects of classical Catholic education. Among others, the committee included Dr. Michael Hanby of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute and Dr. Jared Ortiz, now a professor at Hope College in Michigan.
She also appointed Chris Currie, a parishioner with robust marketing expertise, to develop effective enrollment strategies that reflected the new curriculum model St. Jerome’s was building.
Fr. Stack assembled a financial advisory group from within the parish.
The Curriculum Committee began work in December and, in May, presented a new educational plan that includes Western Christian civilization, the humanities and integrated history, literature, religion, and an approach to math and science that develops in students a sense of wonder about the created world.
“STEM would definitely fit into this plan in terms of subject area,” notes Donoghue, “but only within the broader context of the curriculum model, not as a stand-alone directive.”
At one of the many informational meetings in the parish and community, Donoghue recalls a moment of sheer joy. After listening intently, a hardworking single mother stood up and said,
“You said this kind of education normally would cost $25,000 a year, and you say you’re gonna bring that here? I say, YOU GO, Miss Donoghue!”
Donoghue says this comment made her day, her year. It made all the sacrifice, pain, and suffering worth it.
A new tuition model
Three years into the new curriculum, after enrollment was clearly on the rise and nearing capacity, the school implemented a new tuition model.
“The new tuition model was a huge game-changer,” says Donoghue. “The traditional tuition model is outdated. It ignores that every student has a cost regardless of what the tuition is. The old model was developed when most teachers were essentially working as volunteers: religious sisters who had taken a vow of poverty. That’s not the case today.”
Today tuition at St. Jerome’s is based on what it actually costs to educate a student at the school. Parents requesting financial aid must fill out a detailed assessment — no exceptions. Everything is fair and just, and parents respect this. Donoghue recommends using either the TADS or FACTS assessment models.
Risk versus reward
This process was not easy. During the curriculum development process, there were days when “things heated up,” as Fr. Stack puts it. Some people strongly objected to a classical curriculum or to any change at all. Some engaged media and camera crews. There was a risk that the people who so strongly advocated for a classical and richly Catholic curriculum still wouldn’t send their children to the school, or that existing parents would leave.
Throughout the process, prayer and discernment was constant.
“St. Jerome’s was a huge risk. We always prayed: Lord, it’s your school not mine. If you want this to go forward, then let it happen,” Fr. Stack says. “We had to get ourselves out of Jesus’ way; we’re just instruments.”
Donoghue agrees. “Fear was a huge factor, but for me it was about walking in faith, not sight. Fr. Stack consecrated the school to Our Lady of Guadalupe at the start of the crisis. He knew we were heading into the storm. Often we prayed together at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, spending an hour in prayer to discern God’s will. Even amid the positive energy and momentum, it was an extremely difficult time … painful, exhausting, disruptive of relationships with people I’d known a long time. But we were clear about our mission and vision.”
With Fr. Stack’s help, teachers were given many opportunities to immerse themselves in classical education and pedagogy, and in a deeper understanding of the school’s vision, primarily using resources provided in this article’s sidebar.
“I’ve enjoyed all my parishes, every place I’ve been in,” reflects Fr. Stack, “but at the end of my life, if I’m looking back at what I’m most proud of, St. Jerome’s will be at the top of the list. That turnaround never should have happened, not in that demographic area. But it did. It’s astounding! You’d think that classical curriculum would be more the stuff of a high-end neighborhood Catholic school. But it happened at St. Jerome’s. That’s always going to be a highlight of my priesthood.”
Today St. Jerome’s is at capacity and has a waiting list. Applications vastly exceed space. People move into the neighborhood to get their children into the school.
St. Jerome’s is yielding a profit. Truly struggling families are included. There is no longer a need for much, if any, parish or diocesan subsidy.
“At the start of the new year at St. Jerome’s, I gave teachers the initial talk about the curriculum and the transcendentals,” recalls Fr. Stack. “Today I refer to St. Jerome’s as the school where the kids are taught to see the invisible. If you see the invisible, you have the gift of faith. Once you see that, once you see the light, you don’t go back. That’s where wonder begins.”
Good to Great, by Jim Collins
The Marva Collins Way, by Marva Collins
The Case for Catholic Education, by Ryan N.S. Topping
Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, by Stratford Caldecott
Karen Walker, a former high-school and elementary-school teacher, now works with the Catholic Textbook Project.