How did the Archdiocese of Omaha stop 17 years of enrollment decline at its Catholic schools?

Like many dioceses across the country, the Archdiocese of Omaha experienced a significant decline in the number of Catholic school students from 1965 to 2014. During those years, archdiocesan Catholic schools suffered a 48 percent enrollment loss, capped by 17 straight years of decline from 1998 to 2014. 

Archdiocesan leadership made a commitment to change the pattern, stop the enrollment decline and bring about a bold vision of growth. They wanted to awaken the greatness of Catholic school education in the Archdiocese of Omaha. 

The first step was to conduct a comprehensive strategic planning process to determine the best way to stem the enrollment decline and improve the local community, which includes 32 rural and 38 urban schools. Three notable outcomes came from this planning process – forming the Omaha Catholic School Consortium, the CUES School System for inner city schools and, finally, an archdiocesan capital campaign to help fund these significant changes.

“It is crucial for Catholic school leaders to understand that with a confident vision for growth, a well-designed strategic plan and financial resources to support necessary changes, Catholic education can thrive,” said Patrick Slattery, former Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Omaha. “The resources are out there. Dioceses and school systems must have the gravitas to go find the money. Donors will invest in an exciting vision for growth.”

The archdiocese partnered with the Steier Group to build upon this vision and raise funds to help bring about systemic change, in addition to supporting other key initiatives of the archdiocese. The target goal was $40 million that would be used to accomplish strategic objectives throughout the archdiocese.

The Ignite the Faith Capital Campaign exceeded its goal, raising more than $53 million, and providing critical funds that allowed archdiocesan leaders to make long-term investments in Catholic schools. 

The successful campaign served as the springboard for many new initiatives, including:

  • Developing the Awaken Greatness school marketing campaign
  • Hiring a Latino school enrollment coordinator
  • Exploring a Blended Learning initiative
  • Supporting the development of strategic plans for each school
  • Funding leadership development training for new principals
  • Announcing a $1,500 tuition discount program for transfer students

After implementing its marketing campaign and other strategies, the archdiocese saw an incredible surge in enrollment, posting the largest gains of any diocese in the country. In just two years, the archdiocese saw nearly 1,000 more students enroll in Catholic schools – an increase of 5%. This enrollment gain was spread among both urban and rural schools with 63% of schools seeing gains. 

The addition of the Latino school enrollment coordinator led to an increase of 425 Latino students in the archdiocese during the first two years. And the tuition discount program led to 222 new students in the first year alone.

These creative ways to increase Catholic school enrollment would not have been possible without the funds raised during the capital campaign. 

“Too often, dioceses unknowingly embrace the ‘hospice mentality’ referenced by Cardinal Dolan, this idea that our future can’t be changed, that the challenges are insurmountable,” said Slattery, now the Executive Director of Xaverian Brother Sponsored Schools. “That reality is just not acceptable. When dioceses partner with proven leaders like the Steier Group, they position themselves to find the money to support new programs that will strengthen the quality and sustainability of Catholic education. It can be done. It has been done.”