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Catholic high schools going ‘Madison Avenue’

CINCINNATI, Ohio (The Catholic Telegraph) — Slick brochures, high-profile billboards and even television commercials are part and parcel the advertising agency’s arsenal of marketing tools for convincing consumers to buy a particular brand of laundry soap or a new line of automobiles.

NEW COMPETITION - Moeller High School's marketing poster reflects a new policy in the Cincinnati archdiocese, where a change in the

NEW COMPETITION - Moeller High School's marketing poster reflects a new policy in the Cincinnati archdiocese, where a change in the "feeder school" system means that parents are now free to send their children to any Catholic high school they choose. (Courtesy)


But in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati this school year, sophisticated marketing campaigns have been adopted by Catholic high schools to compete for students in a marketplace that has changed dramatically.

Last summer, all Catholic high schools in the archdiocese were allowed to recruit students from across the region after nearly 50 years of a restriction on recruiting limited to elementary schools within assigned boundaries. Those boundaries were dissolved July 1.

Students have been able to attend any high school they wished, regardless of where they lived, but the interparochial high schools could not contact students outside of their assigned “districts.” Private Catholic schools were not bound by the requirement.

‘A very freeing experience’

At Chaminade Julienne High School, the open borders allowed school officials to make contacts in areas from which CJ students have already come.

“For us, it’s been a very freeing experience,” said Alison Radelet, admissions coordinator. “It has forced all of us as schools to do more groundwork. It has required us to increase our marketing materials, but in a positive way. The thing that it increased the most, which we have enjoyed tremendously, is having students come into our school building.”

For about the last 18 months, the school has sent a quarterly newsletter to students in grades 5-8. The school has seen more visitors, both individually and in groups, than usual.

“There are so many agents of change happening on a daily basis,” Radelet said. “There is plenty that still needs to be worked out with this process. We see the growth opportunities for Catholic education.”

Officials at Carroll High School in Dayton said they combined new recruiting efforts with things they have done previously.

“We did do some of the things that we’ve done in the past because that model worked for us,” said Carroll Principal John Sens. “We did participate in the high school information nights. Most of our schools participated in those. That was a new effort this year.”

Like other schools, Carroll sent out postcards and other mailings to prospective students within a reasonable range of the school. The school also invited eighth-graders to visit and held an open house.

“We’re trying to broaden the area for recruitment and still be prudent in the choices we made in our recruitment,” Sens said. “There’s no doubt about the fact that increased efforts in recruiting (make it) more costly for a high school to recruit.”

Widening the net

Some schools try to walk a fine line between effectively recruiting to a broader area while still being considerate of students’ time and needs.

Still, despite slick mailings and events, reputation remains an extremely effective endorsement of a school.

“I think the best recruitment tool that we have is really word of mouth that comes from our students being successful and parents being satisfied with the education we provide,” Sens said. “That word of mouth, you just can’t beat it.”

At Badin High School in Hamilton, school officials determined that there was a need to “widen the net” for new students beyond the traditional areas the Butler County school has tried to reach in the past, according to Dirk Q. Allen, director of communications.

“We looked at where some of the feeder schools were, the elementary schools we haven’t reached out to in the past, and we asked if it would be reasonable to think they’d want to come to Badin High School,” Allen said. The result was that Badin began marketing in earnest to elementary schools well south of their traditional reach, including numerous schools in St. Margaret Mary Deanery, where Allen said parents might consider making the “short drive up to Hamilton” on U.S. 27.

“We feel like this should help us in the long run,” Allen said. “Our six direct feeder schools have been getting smaller, so the opportunity to go outside the boundaries is a good development for us. And we have to make sure we do a good job of keeping the local students coming to Badin,” and then reach out to students in new areas.

But Allen acknowledged that while Badin has been able to go beyond its traditional boundaries, so have all the other Catholic high schools in the archdiocese. And that requires a great deal of focus on the part of the marketing planners.

“Just as we get to widen our net, so do other schools,” Allen said. Thus Badin is now going head-to-head with schools such as Moeller, McAuley, Ursuline, St. Xavier and Mount Notre Dame for the same coveted students. And with the new Fenwick High School located just off the expressway in eastern Butler County, the competition for students is even greater, he said.

“The bottom line is that this year, we did a lot more (marketing) than we’ve done in the past, and overall we feel like we didn’t do enough,” he said. “When we look at some of the marketing campaigns of the other schools, we see impressive, high-profile stuff,” Allen said. The result, he said, was that Badin will ultimately have to bolster its marketing budget to cut through any marketing clutter.

Marianist Brother Ron Luksic, dean of admissions at Moeller High School, noted that it is a little early to tell how his school’s progressive marketing campaign has gone; registration for the next school year was scheduled to close Jan. 22, after the CT deadline.

Increasing competition

However, Brother Ron noted that there are new developments for Catholic high schools that really propelled them into new marketing territory.

“For example, we gave one (entrance) test this year, and students had three options for (which schools) to send their scores.” The dissolution of boundaries, he noted “has widened our thinking about the traditional feeder school option. All the schools knew with open boundaries, it would be a question of reaching a wider audience. It’s already a pretty competitive market, and we no longer have our traditional 10 Catholic elementary feeder schools as our main focus.”

But, Brother Ron noted, the competition for students is nothing new for private schools, who for years have had to market region-wide to fill their classrooms. “Now we’re all on the same playing field in terms of parents making choices.”

Officials at Roger Bacon High School say they are pleased with the result of their marketing campaign that relied on mailed brochures, yard signs and billboards.

“We had a great turnout at our open house, and we had twice as many (entrance exams) this year over the past year,” said Brittany Ballard, director of communications. “We also have noticeably more interest from nontraditional feeder schools, such as St. Ignatius in Monfort Heights. We’re optimistic and pleased about how things have gone.”

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Telegraph(www.catholiccincinnati.org), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincincinnati, Ohio.

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