A Nativity of Our Savior student focuses on her studies during pre-pandemic (and maskless) times at the Portage school. "Catholic education is open to everyone" is the theme of a new Catholic Diocese of Gary marketing effort aimed at encouraging families to look into Indiana Choice Scholarships that help families afford private school tuition. Parents can visit NWIChoiceScholar.org to see if they qualify. (Provided photo)
MERRILLVILLE | When Big Shoulders Fund made its $16 million commitment to Diocese of Gary schools in late 2019, the idea was to expand its successful programming in Chicago into Northwest Indiana, bringing long-term academic and operational support to the 20 diocesan schools.
Concentrating its initial efforts on school communities in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago during the first year, Big Shoulders served all schools in some capacity. This year, Big Shoulders is intensifying marketing and outreach efforts at all diocesan schools in an effort to boost enrollment by letting families know that Catholic schools are open to all students and financial aid is available through several channels, said Dan Kozlowski, regional director for the Big Shoulders Northwest Indiana Initiative .
“‘Catholic Education is Open to Everyone,’ is our theme,” said Dr. Joseph Majchrowicz, diocesan schools superintendent. “Catholic education is an opportunity that many families didn’t think was open to them, either because of finances or because they are not Catholic. We want to stress that our schools are open to all.”
Parents need to know there are scholarships available to help them finance a Catholic education, and marketing is the key, Majchrowicz added. “The Indiana Choice Scholarship Program has been here for 10 years, but it’s a concept people haven’t heard about or known how to access and use,” he said.
During the most recent state accreditation process, added Majchrowicz, it was recommended the diocese take steps to improve its marketing, so all principals were charged with developing and implementing a marketing plan and the diocese hired DMZ Productions to help schools improve their websites and gain visibility.
“We made some progress, but not leaps and bounds,” admitted Majchrowicz, pointing to a study showing that over the past 6-7 years, overall enrollment in Diocese of Gary schools dropped 30 percent.
That led Kozlowski to step in. “People knew about vouchers, but the Indiana Department of Education website is difficult to understand,” he said. “We wanted to make it simple to get answers, find out if you are eligible for a Choice Scholarship and how much you could receive, with a ‘no purchase necessary’ tool.”
Toward that end, Big Shoulders, funded by Bruce and Beth White of Merrillville’s White Lodging, created the Choice Calculator website (nwichoicescholar.org), which went live on Jan. 25, offering families a user-friendly way to provide basic information (number of people in the household, income level, zip code, school district) and get an immediate answer about Choice eligibility and the amount of funding available. “We don’t ask for a name or address, so there is no data collection,” Kozlowski noted. “If a family wants to reach out to us, they can provide their data and they will be contacted within 48 hours. We had 10 (serious) inquiries on just the first day.”
If a Choice Scholarship cannot meet a family’s needs, he added, they can still apply for a Diocese of Gary or Big Shoulders scholarship, both based on need. Some schools also offer their own financial aid packages.
Kozlowski admitted that most families will still need to contribute some amount toward a Catholic school education. “A Catholic education is an investment, and parents must also be investors and have some skin in the game. What you pay for, you’ll definitely receive,” he said of a Diocese of Gary education.
During the first year of Big Shoulders’ involvement, NWI Catholic schools have improved through increased access to technology, curricular materials and data coaching. Grants totaling $25,000 went toward enrichment activities and equipment, and there were assessment visits and professional development related to virtual learning, mission planning, enrollment and retention strategies, safety and social distance planning and other topics. A Father’s Day Meal Distribution provided 10,000 free meals and promoted Catholic schools, and $200,000 was provided in partnership with the diocese through the NWI COVID-19 Emergency Scholarship Fund.
“We want all families to look at our Catholic schools, and Big Shoulders is partnering with us in that effort,” Majchrowicz said. “We have openings in all of our schools. They have been open since Aug. 12, 10 with in-person classes only and 10 with a hybrid plan that has an average of 75 percent of students attending in person and a remote learning option selected by about 25 percent of our families.”
“I’d stack our Catholic school data up against anyone,” said Kozlowski, adding that almost all diocesan schools have increased enrollment during this school year due to the emphasis on in-person schooling. “A Catholic education is far superior to anything else.”