Know thy community

In photo above, principal Julie Nguyen of St. Patrick Academy in Sacramento with third grade students, from left: Nathaniel Hurley, Harper Broom, Giselle Plumboy and Namashya. Steve German photo

Among philosophical sayings, “know thyself” would likely top many lists as an important key to unlocking potential for personal growth and understanding. Theologically, too, self-knowledge in the context of faith strengthens Catholic identity. It stands to reason, also, that a variation on this theme holds true for Catholic elementary schools. Sacred Heart School in Red Bluff and St. Patrick Academy in Sacramento find that to “know thy community” quite possibly holds the key to managing persistent enrollment demands.

Sacred Heart School in Red Bluff

With its 120-year history, Sacred Heart School not only claims longevity but also finesse in balancing budgets, enrolling students and creating a quality, God-focused, Catholic school learning environment.

Ups and downs notwithstanding, Michelle Ferreira, in her second year as principal and a returnee after having taught at Sacred Heart in the late 1990s and early 2000s, views enrollment management as big-picture thinking. Listing more than a dozen important factors that influence enrollment numbers, she says, “It’s kind of a perfect storm of all these things that we’ve worked on.”

Michelle refers to many Catholic school staples, such as strong student learning expectations, a strong mission statement, and the Education in Virtues program. The people component also matters significantly, as excellent teachers, welcoming staff and supportive parents, parishioners and pastor all infuse a noticeable spirit. Further, the school focuses on creating a positive learning environment, excellent facilities, sports and extracurriculars. 

“Parents look at us and they like what they see,” Michelle says, pleased that the blend of these offerings represents a high-caliber setting that parents are turning to more and more.

Michelle also notes several other refinements that speak to the times, and the larger community of Red Bluff. The Sacred Heart School administration tries to recognize and read its community.

“Things are happening,” in other local schools, Michelle reports, that prompt parents to worry about these schools’ direction of instruction, the absence of values, and confusing and permissive attitudes that contradict what they believe.  

“I'm able to talk to children about God, and about religion,” Michelle conveys, thankful that every situation and every experience can be framed with God. “If a student gets in trouble, we can talk about forgiveness,” she offers as one example, noting how other schools are “missing God.”

One prospective family toured the school and witnessed a longstanding program in action. “We’ve been doing ‘Reading Buddies’ for years,” Michelle explains but families unfamiliar with it see the pairing of a younger student with an older student for reading time and state, “We want our children here, we want our child in an environment where older kids work with younger kids.” Michelle witnesses prospective parents yearning for wholesome camaraderie, communication, virtue and respect.

While these societal dynamics cannot be predicted or controlled, Michelle indicates readiness and responsiveness to greet and meet those who seek alternatives.

Sacred Heart School also takes giant steps to immerse itself and its students into the community of Red Bluff. The idea is to contribute and give back while proactively familiarizing the population with the school so that it can be known as a viable option for families.

“Basically, it’s getting out there in the community,” Michelle stresses candidly. “Sacred Heart is involved in a lot of events,” she notes, mentioning art contests, parades, a children’s fair, Special Olympics and participation in the nonprofit Missoula Children’s Theater. With the support of the regional advancement director for Catholic schools, Sacred Heart School also advertises on Little League ball fields and promotes itself digitally on various social media platforms.

When new families consider Sacred Heart School, Michelle emphasizes the school’s commitment to smaller, single-grade classrooms. “It’s a fine balance to always have enough students to balance the budget,” she acknowledges, but the importance of teachers devoted to a single grade level, rather than combined classrooms, is desirable for parents and teachers.

“I feel like we have a harmonious environment,” Michelle says, content that the Sacred Heart community consists of families and teachers who genuinely want to be there. “This is a positive choice for many new families,” she adds, committed to sustaining an environment rooted in God, quality education, responsiveness to societal voids, and community immersion.

St. Patrick Academy in Sacramento

For Julie Nguyen, principal of St. Patrick Academy, enrollment is not as much about numbers as it is about bringing Christ to children and families.

“I’m focused on the Catholic identity part, and when you do this, enrollment increases,” she contends. “At the end of the day, we’re Catholic and that does not change,” Julie adds, grateful to lead at a school that has been steeped in this commitment from its earliest roots when the facilities were first established as St. Patrick’s Home for Children in the 1930s.

Julie moved to Sacramento from Los Angeles three years ago content to continue teaching, but when she experienced a providential nudge to assume the principalship at the revered and historic school, she accepted. Now named St. Patrick Academy, the school serves a larger region of seven parishes and diverse neighborhoods delivering academic programs and integrating arts education throughout.

“We’re going back to our roots,” Julie explains, pointing to a philosophy of outreach to the community with decades-long ties to St. Patrick’s. With a staff and teachers that “really work well together,” she implies that they see their future in the relationships all around them.

By “roots” she refers to the immediate St. Rose Parish family, “reaching out to parish members” as partners in their mission. Recognizing how parish and school connections can ebb and flow, Julie desires the community climate that many fondly remember. Many families once served by the school still live near and worship at St. Rose. The ties are strong, and she senses interest and support in growing St. Patrick Academy so that its branches might bear new fruit.

“We’ve opened up all our events, and we’re opening our campus for faith formation,” Julie says, thrilled that together with the parish, they are “sharing our resources and sharing our gifts with everybody” in the surrounding communities.

“We’re seeing a lot of our families and they’re bringing in their family members,” Julie says, attesting to new activity grounded in faith, nurtured in community. Their local focus on the National Eucharistic Revival demonstrates how their faith-forward initiatives concentrate first on staying close to the vine and bringing Christ to children and families.

Julie directs significant credit to her team of teachers and administrators -- several with personal familial ties to the community themselves – for their collaborative work. While they are not preoccupied with enrollment numbers, they all know the importance of bringing in new students from a budget standpoint. Welcoming more than 100 new students in the past two years, St. Patrick Academy is now at its pre-COVID-19 enrollment. Community outreach, grant programs and a return to many celebrated offerings have held the key to managing enrollment.

“We’re bringing back retreats, Friday school Masses and a strong music program,” Julie says, not mired in what caused the interruptions, but instead honoring the community and its recognition of “what our academy was built on.”

And relationship-building never ceases to strengthen communities. Julie notes team efforts to reach out to other parishes without Catholic schools in their region remain a priority. Coupled with a greater social media presence, Julie senses the word is getting out effectively regarding events and opportunities.

“Parents are choosing us,” Julie confirms, comfortable with all that continues to unfold in St. Patrick Academy’s reinvention of its roots. “They want faith integrated and a whole education,” she adds, meaning a school committed to learning, virtue and service opportunities to “give back.”  

Julie holds a vision of opening job opportunities for alumni and the local community. As an ultimate “give-back” outcome, she regards that ideal as “bittersweet … historical.” 

“I love seeing alumni come back,” she says, referring to the summer months when graduates returned to marvel at beautiful changes. “One of my favorite things has been to welcome back a family whose grandparents recalled days at the original St. Patrick’s Home for Children,” she shares, reporting the gleam in their eyes as they spotted where their own bunk beds used to be.

LEARN MORE about elementary schools in the Diocese of Sacramento at /schools



Catholic Herald Issue