Strategic Plan Helps School Shift from Reactive to Proactive

Article excerpt

St James Catholic School offers its survival guide to strategic planning

"We're having a meeting with some consultants from the NCEA," Father Patrick Posey, pastor of St. James Church announced to me one humid August morning. "Sister Nancy and I were talking...."

I will confess here and now that I greeted those words with mixed emotions, not the least of which was trepidation. Because Father Posey is famous for his ideas-all good and all of which seek to solidify our parish community. Simple ideas like...capital campaigns and new websites.

When Father Posey and Principal Sister Nancy Kindelan, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) began speaking of building a strategic plan, there was no immediate crisis. St. James Catholic School has been a fixture of the Falls Church, Virginia, community since 1906. It is the second oldest parochial school in the Diocese of Arlington. Administered since 1923 by the Immaculate Heart sisters, St. James has weathered a century of change. The school has been (and remains) committed to academic excellence; in 1999 it was the first parochial elementary school in the diocese to earn the Blue Ribbon Schools Award from the U.S. Department of Education.

However, the school has witnessed demographic shifts resulting in some enrollment decline in the middle school grades. In spring 2011 the school reduced seventh and eighth grade homerooms from three to two.

"I wanted us to be proactive and not reactive," recalled Father Posey. "We have an excellent school; our students do extremely well. But, like all schools, we had areas where we could improve. I knew more systematic planning for our future was needed."

Discussions ensued with Regina Haney and Daniel Curtin of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), as well as with Diocesan Superintendent Sister Bernadette McManigal, a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and school Vice Principal, Immaculate Heart Sister Margaret McCullough.

During this time St James was in the process of reaccreditation using the Design for Excellence (DFE) program of the Virginia Catholic Educational Association. Working on both plans simultaneously afforded the opportunity to marry two vital components of educational planning. Many of the DFE goals are found in the Strategic Plan.

With the NCEA representatives as guides, the school and parish began the Odyssey. AfterlO months, more than 100 hours in meetings, conference calls and enough email traffic to crash the Internet, St James arrived at a Five Year Strategic Plan.

St. James was not unique in addressing the challenges and opportunities that parochial education faces today. It is just one school in the national discussion, but it shows what can happen when strategic thinking occurs before a crisis erupts. The process was long- at times contentious, at times humorous- but at all times worthwhile and illuminating.

With apologies to Late Night TV, St James offers a Top Ten List of How to Plan Strategically and Not Lose Your Mind

Commitment from the Top Down

"The very essence of leadership Is that you have to have vision. You cannot blow an uncertain trumpet" Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president, the University of Notre Dame

This cannot be overstated. The necessity of having both principal and pastor working together is the most important element in successful strategic planning. A united front among school and rectory is needed to ensure that a consistent message goes out to volunteers, parents and parishioners. This dual commitment is reiterated to staff, who become intricately involved by providing much of the needed background data that allows committees to do their work effectively. Anticipating these needs by staff must also be at the forefront.

Diocesan officials must also be willingto engage in discussions, be present as much as possible during the process and show themselves equally committed to creative thinking. …