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Recruitment efforts bring hope to North Omaha school

Participating in Omaha's Florence Day Parade is one of the many recruitment efforts Blessed Sacrament School has made to increase student enrollment. At the end of the 2004-2005 school year, only 68 students were enrolled. That enrollment has grown to 90 students for the 2005-2006 school year.

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice

When the school year ended this spring, Blessed Sacrament School's future looked bleak. Only 68 students were enrolled at the North Omaha grade school and eight of them were eighth-graders. Only one child came to kindergarten round-up.

But after 14 months of intense recruitment, enrollment is up and the future looks promising. Ninety students are enrolled for the 2005-2006 school year, with 12 in the kindergarten class.

"We're making a big commitment to families," said Sue Moser, principal of Blessed Sacrament School for 18 years. "We believe God wants this little school on 30th Street to be here."

Opening its doors in 1920, Blessed Sacrament was a thriving school, hitting its peak of 133 students in 1996. But over the last five years the school has experienced a gradual drop in enrollment due largely to the fact that the large Catholic families that once lived in the neighborhood have moved.

Concerned, Moser gathered about 15 members of the school's development committee, the parish finance committee and the school board to discuss solutions. They met with a local development consultant and came up with a plan of action.

"We had some hard issues to deal with and we struggled with them for almost a year," Moser said. "But once we had every one on board, then things started moving."

First, the group decided to decrease tuition and to eliminate the book bill, which made it more affordable for families in the neighborhood. Also they were willing to accept more non-parish and non-Catholic students. Already, the ratio of parish to non-parish students at the school is 50/50.

"We'll do whatever we can because more children should be a part of our program," Moser said, acknowledging the school's award-winning multi-age learning system. "If they are part of our program, they will succeed and they will have doors open for them. We just have to make that possible for them."

Getting word out

The next step in the recruitment project was to spread the word. Several informational meetings were held for parents to explain the benefits of an education at Blessed Sacrament School and to encourage them to be recruiters for the school.

"The parents have been the best recruitment tool yet," Moser said. "I have one woman out there who I think has recruited four other families."

The recruitment group then sent fliers to neighbors and parents inviting them to attend several school activities, including a book fair, assessment test fair, ice cream social and an evening pep rally. The school even sponsored a float in the Florence Day Parade. It launched a postcard campaign, mailing out 1,000 postcards three times to the three area zip codes around the school to let people know what was available to them at Blessed Sacrament.

Each activity built enthusiasm and drew a few more families and referrals, Moser said.

The school recently hired a full-time development director, Sabrina Navarrette, to continue the work of the recruitment committee.

Money-making efforts

Right now, it costs Blessed Sacrament School $5,000 to educate one student each year. With the tuition adjustment, families now pay $100 per month for 10 months for each child, said Larry Ziska, chairman of the parish finance committee and recruitment group.

To offset the drop in tuition, the school needs to increase its donations and scholarships, he said. The school already has an Education Fund and receives financial assistance from the Children's Scholarship Fund and the Archdiocese of Omaha. The parishioners of Blessed Sacrament and alumni of the school also provide much assistance.

"We are basically relying on contributions and efforts of our development office to help us achieve those dollars," Ziska said. "It made it more affordable and that was our campaign. We are providing a very affordable education."

The school and the parish are so intertwined that one cannot exist without the other, therefore it's necessary to seek ways of making sure they both survive, he said. That requires a personal commitment to finding more scholarship money so that it can be more flexible in working with each family's individual needs.

"We need to beef up our development efforts and recruiting and financial resources," said Ziska, a grandparent of a Blessed Sacrament student. "We need to just really blow our horn so to speak, and let it be known that we're for the long term and everything we're doing is for the long term."

In October, the school held its first annual dinner auction. The function raised $20,000 for the Children's Scholarship Fund, which offers private education to low income families.

"We've got an excellent product and we just don't want to see it go away," Ziska said.

It's not just a school

The key to having a successful recruitment project is to have a product worth promoting and Moser said Blessed Sacrament is that type of product.

It's not just a school, but a community where students work together, teach each other and take responsibility for one another, she said.

"Our older students pretty much know the names of every child in the school and they can probably tell you whether they drink white or chocolate milk," she said.

Msgr. Edgar Wortmann, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish for 30 years, has made a difference, too, she said. "It's a privilege to work with him. His ability to support and keep a positive attitude is always appreciated," she said. "I am so blessed to be with him. I wish every principal had the beauty of the relationship that we have."

As Blessed Sacrament prepares to begin its 86th school year, Moser has high hopes for the future of the school. She hopes to have 50 new students over the next two years – they already have 30 – and to get more funds for scholarships.

"People have been extremely generous, even with numbers dwindling," she said. "You just have to have faith that God will provide."

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