Faced with a possible closure, the parents of St. Mary Catholic Academy in Port Huron, Mich., decided there was only one way to save the school for its 120 students: marketing.

The situation was tough enough. With stagnant enrollment and a difficult economy for parochial institutions, the school had come to rely more and more on the church budget to meet expenses. Their hearts sinking, parents had watched as other Catholic schools were forced to close or consolidate. Rumor had it they were next. The situation grew even dimmer when their priest—who oversaw administration of and set policies for the school—had to leave the church for medical treatment.

Although the school was struggling, the parent group had continued raising money, especially through its fall fundraiser. Determined to prove that their school could survive, the PTO budgeted an unprecedented $10,000 for an advertising campaign. “We decided over the summer to spend big bucks,” says PTO President Jennie McClelland. “Enrollment was declining, so we went pretty big. We decided to continue with it next year [with a larger, $15,000 budget], even though the future is uncertain. There was a temptation to put it on hold until we got some answers about our school’s future. But it’s paid off.”

The thrust of the campaign was determined by how parents responded to a survey asking what they valued most about St. Mary: the individualized attention students receive, the moral and ethical aspects of a Catholic education, and the school’s high academic standards. One parent found a book about how to market an independent school and took charge of a marketing committee. Another parent designed a website that attracted a family who had just moved to the state. Radio ads generated interest, with many requests coming in for information packets. There were also newspaper ads and billboards and a targeted direct mail campaign—all reflecting their theme, “One Child at a Time.”

Involving Dads

The effort to arouse interest in the school also tapped a previously underused resource: dads. The PTO conducted a free community parenting seminar, “Just for Dads,” where a local psychologist discussed the importance of fathers in the lives of their children and offered tips about common parenting concerns. To promote the workshop, St. Mary parents finagled an agreement with the public school system to send home a flyer with every elementary student in the district. Thousands of announcements went out. “It helped a lot,” McClelland says. “It brought dads to the workshop and got our name out there.”

Dads were recruited to tow a school float in the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade, during which St. Mary pens and brochures were passed out along the route. A prize for the best youth float even led to a free spot on a local radio station. Christmas presented another opportunity, with a group of St. Mary carolers entertaining appreciative crowds throughout the neighborhood. “Getting involved in the community helped gain publicity,” says McClelland. “But it also made the school more tightly woven into the community fabric and made its absence a greater threat.”

Dads were also the inspiration behind a new addition to the school’s annual major fundraiser, the Fall Harvest, which nets nearly $80,000. Several parents thought a Texas Hold ’Em poker tournament would be fun and profitable—which it was, adding $4,000 to the event’s bottom line. One dad attended a PTO meeting to suggest a spring golf tournament and was told to run with it; the result was an extra $10,000 in the treasury and another boost to male involvement. Dads (and grandpas) are an important part of the annual Sweetheart Dance for girls and the main men in their lives; last year, 95 percent of the female students participated. And a dad even joined the PTO board as vice president.

Promote your parent group! 8 ways to educate your school community

“We wanted to raise the level of awareness for dads,” says former PTO president Char Sweeney. “We wanted to get the word out that not only are they welcome but needed and that we could assign them to roles appropriate to their skills, abilities, and interests.”

Fundraising was just as critical as the marketing efforts. At a private school, money raised by the PTO pays not just for extras like whiteboards and a portable microphone but also for operating costs and equipment like a copy machine and a floor polisher, as well as classroom desks and $1,000 per teacher to help buy supplies. At St. Mary, the PTO raised more than $100,000 last year, a major part of their efforts to keep the school afloat. “We have a wonderful staff,” says Principal Tim Toepel. “But this little school couldn’t exist in terms of functioning or financially without the support of the PTO. Parents have such a feeling of ownership. They realize that they are the school.”

The parents’ efforts to save St. Mary were successful. By April 2006, six new families had signed up, reversing a trend of declining enrollment. Father Simeon Iber, who had been assigned to their church temporarily, was named its pastor. And St. Mary has received news that it will add a middle school in fall 2007 as another Catholic middle school closes its doors. “In a difficult economy, we have turned the whole place around,” Sweeney says. “There’s new leadership, new enthusiasm. We have worked hard to make this a place where people are comfortable. I think we can continue to grow.”

Group at a Glance

Name: St. Mary Catholic Academy PTO
Location: Port Huron, Mich.
Community: population 31,501; suburban/rural
School Size: 120 students
Grades: preK-5
Annual Budget: $77,000

Tips for Groups at Small Schools

A small school facing large hurdles, especially related to funding, has to make good use of all its limited resources. St. Mary Catholic Academy, which has only 88 families yet managed to raise more than $100,000 through 12 fundraisers and to host 27 additional activities for families, offers these ideas for success:

Use detailed, standardized forms. A parent participation survey and a fundraising hours form, which are distributed to all parents, offer a platform to sound off about what matters most to them in the school and how they intend to contribute. As a result of the information gathered this way, the school reinstated field day and created a chess club. These forms are so detailed that parents can sign up for the times of day or night they can help at each event throughout the entire year. For example, a spaghetti dinner is divided into six tasks, each with its time span listed. The result has been increased participation in most events and a reduced burden on a small corps of volunteers.

Establish the PTO calendar ahead of time. Setting dates and laying out the year’s events before the fall semester gets under way helps keep events from being overlooked as harried volunteers rush from one activity to the next. “Planning helps,” says PTO President Jennie McClelland. “If it’s already on the calendar, it gets done.”

Continue proven successes. Although new ideas can help spark new enthusiasm, they also require more work. So while you’re searching for something different, don’t forget the benefit of building on past successes. “Starting the Fall Harvest auction event was hugely labor intensive a couple of years ago,” McClelland says. “But now the groundwork is in place, so it doesn’t take as much energy.”

Enlist the help of the preschool teacher. The hunt for willing volunteers is never-ending, and it’s especially tough when a school is small. So it’s important to involve parents as soon as their children enroll. At St. Mary, the preschool teacher is encouraged to pass along the names of parents who might be receptive to overtures from other parent volunteers.

Take the summer off. Summer is a good time for planning the coming year, but it’s also a welcome breather. With such a small force of parent volunteers, a quiet summer is vital for getting reenergized.