“August through October was onboarding time, when I was given the space to see the school and get to know everyone. In that first 90 days, I didn’t change a thing. But we did look for low-hanging fruit so we could achieve some early wins and then build momentum.”
Quick Wins, Bright Future
When the Board of Specified Jurisdiction launched at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus School (Somerville, MA) in October 2020, the new Chair and members, including the Pastor, knew they would be called upon as change agents. Among their roles: establishing a search committee for a new Principal and recruiting additional members to the Board based on the school’s most pressing needs.
“We often talk about getting the right people on the bus to solve the challenges related to Catholic school sustainability,” said Chris Martin, Director of Schools, Healey Education Foundation. “This start-up Board knew that its priorities around staffing and infrastructure required swift, sound action.”
In April 2021, after an extensive search process, the Board voted to hire Kevin Donohue, whom the Pastor then appointed as Principal. By the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, additional Board leadership was placed – including Finance and Development Committee Chairs.
While recruiting new members, the Board along with school leaders achieved notable successes:
- With an active, decision-making Board, the Principal has been able to focus more heavily on academic needs, including finding more opportunities to support and grow faculty for the benefit of students. “I’ve so appreciated the Board’s ability to be removed from the day-to-day. They’ve focused on goal-setting, on systematic approaches to outreach, admission and involving alumni and supporters and on long-term campus improvement,” said Donohue. “What a huge difference they’ve made in moving us from short-term to long-term thinking.”
- Under the leadership of the Board Vice Chair, the school established the Marian Burns Scholarship Fund in honor of the former Principal.
- St. Theresa’s partnered with the Lynch Foundation to expand and renovate the school’s Pre-K by introducing research-based curriculum and methods established by Lynch’s early childhood program.
- The Principal and Chair of the Board’s Development Committee professionalized the fundraising shop – now the most successful and engaging it has been in years. Fundraising no longer relies solely on a sales-based approach and, inclusive of a revived Annual Fund, more than tripled its prior total return in one year. The school recently secured several gifts from local foundations, including one for $100K that will support student scholarships.
- Working closely with the Finance Chair, the school introduced a new enrollment and tuition structure to address accountability. Tuition collection increased by more than $100K year over year driven by an increase in enrollment and new systems. And the school is projecting a financial surplus next year, even with the most conservative enrollment and fundraising figures.
From Structure to Stewardship
Danielle V. Auriemma, Development Chair of the School Board, shared how foundational and structural the initial changes were. “With an annual fund that ebbed and flowed over the years, we needed to build a successful and sustainable fundraising process,” she said. “This is the school’s next-generation approach to fundraising.”
This first full school year was in essence a pilot year through which the Board would understand what the program should look like and which low-return events and activities could be discontinued.
Recent appeal letters from Donohue and Fr. Brian McHugh, Pastor, shared with donors what their past support had enabled: in-person instruction during the 2020-21 academic year, a newly installed STEM lab, upgraded technology and enhancements in the physical plant. They also reported the optimistic news of increased enrollment for two consecutive years following the prior five years of decline. Future gifts will help the school to:
- Ensure the safety of the school community as in-person learning continues
- Assist with classroom and facility renovations and upgrades
- Bring cutting-edge technologies and teaching techniques into the classroom
- Grow the social, spiritual and academic well-being of students
After a Board decision has been made, the well-run Board speaks with one voice to support that decision. Authority is vested in the Board as a whole, not with individuals.
To operate effectively, school leaders need to understand the interplay between the Board, Principal/Head of School, Pastor and other staff directing enrollment, development and financial operations for the school.
Donohue explained how working with individual Board members and Committee Chairs has helped him grow into a better understanding of strategy and process across all the disciplines. “In working with Danielle Auriemma on annual fund, for example, I was challenged to explore goals beyond year one, to consider systematic approaches to donors and donations, to bring a greater sense of vision to considering untapped potential,” he said.
About working with Donohue and the Board Chair, Auriemma said, “Through his experiences at a prior school, Kevin was involved enough in each of our expertise areas that he’s been able to be receptive to taking our work to the next level across all areas. And our Chair, Jerry McElroy, a lawyer by training, has tremendous insight and is really strategic. He keeps us focused and working functionally as a group, which includes a leadership approach that is participatory and collaborative.”
Collaboration among the Principal, Board Chair and Pastor has also become routine at St. Theresa’s. “It takes a village to run a school well these days,” said Fr. Brian. “Tapping into the expertise the laity possesses from near and far is the best way to help strengthen our school community and enable it to grow. Our Board not only assisted in the hiring of a new Principal but also is contributing to growth strategies moving forward. Saint Thérèsa, the Little Flower, pray for us.”
Donohue explained that Fr. Brian not only attends every Board meeting, but is often in conversations with him and McElroy about bringing in new Board members, what it means to be a faith-based community and building stronger academics. The three of them have also developed a strategic communications plan to share with the school community and key stakeholders updates on the school’s current state of affairs and continued efforts for future growth and engagement.
“We find that even if we have differences of opinion, we are all looking to meet the same goal,” Donohue said. “At the end of the day, we’re all dedicated to what makes the most sense for students. This unity keeps us moving forward.”
“Each of us Committee Chairs has within our purview the work of our professional specialty. Schools looking for Board members need those who love volunteering, who will roll up their sleeves because they’re action and results oriented. Plus it’s their professional experience that will bring insight and strategy — to chart a different path than the school would have otherwise.”