Reinvention Without Compromise?

The New York Times recently ran an article about Catholic primary and secondary schools “rebranding” successfully. So, how does a Catholic school become anything other than a Catholic school? The article highlighted St. Stephen of Hungary on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as a pointed example of how a parochial school can honor tradition and also start anew.

Once facing the plight of many other Catholic schools (dropped enrollment and reduced funding – sound familiar?), St. Stephen has re-imagined the role it can and does play in the education of young New Yorkers. To be sure, the school is still Catholic and rife with prayer and crucifixes; however, St. Stephen now offers the bells and whistles of an independent (i.e., private) school education at a lower price-point. At one-quarter of the tuition of an independent school education, St. Stephen’s students benefit from low student-teacher ratios, collaborative learning environments, violin lessons, iPads in classrooms, and faith-based value systems.  As St. Stephen, Reverend Angelo Gambatese explains “Our competition or our standard isn’t another good Catholic school…[our competition is] the best independent schools in Manhattan.”

Reverend Gambatese’s sentiment, coupled with the marketability of the revitalized St. Stephen, seems to be a lesson worth exploring. St. Stephen suggests successful marketability in education is as simple as understanding and honoring your competition. Instead of playing the martyr (no pun intended), the administrators at St. Stephen took action. They looked carefully at where prospective students (or, at least, desirable prospective students who are less likely to need financial assistance) were choosing to enroll and learned what drove that choice; the school also brought fresh talent into administrative positions. Now, St. Stephen has many accomplishments to boast, such as the ability to hire more full-time faculty members and increase its fundraising yield exponentially. In short, by understanding and, to some degree, emulating its competition, St. Stephen can stay in business.

There are tradeoffs: St. Stephen’s student body has grown less diverse. While there are several viable explanations for why this might be, it is a reminder that business savvy and marketability are not inherently synonymous with today’s buzzwords in education like access and inclusion.

Caveats aside, can this model apply to higher education? Of course, colleges and universities are larger—and ostensibly less nimble—than a K-8 school such as St. Stephen. At the same time, who’s to stop a college from identifying its greatest competition and incorporating some of the competition’s practices into their own?  Not only could these efforts breathe life into stale programming but they also represent a fundamental business strategy that may have gotten lost in the shuffle of accreditation, tenure and budget cuts.