St. Catherine Academy sees brighter future

Brandon Ballard, left, and Kailee Miller, both eighth-graders at St. Catherine Academy in New Haven, Ky., read from their books during class on Nov. 5. The school in Nelson County has seen a 15 percent increase in student enrollment during the course of the last year. (Record Photos by Jessica Able)

Brandon Ballard, left, and Kailee Miller, both eighth-graders at St. Catherine Academy in New Haven, Ky., read from their books during class on Nov. 5. The school in Nelson County has seen a 15 percent increase in student enrollment during the course of the last year. (Record Photos by Jessica Able)

By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN, Ky. — St. Catherine Academy is not only thriving, this small school in Nelson County, Ky., is growing.

In the last year, the school has seen a 15 percent increase in enrollment. Last school year began with 93 students and by the end of the year, the school had 97. This school year began with 107 students.

“Several years ago our enrollment dropped to 80 and we were in panic mode,” said Jo Renee O’Bryan, principal of St. Catherine, in an interview at the school last week.

She credits a couple of factors for the steady rise — more intentional marketing efforts and increased financial aid from the Archdiocese of Louisville and the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF). The two organizations announced last fall an effort to double tuition assistance for Catholic school children.

The school’s most important effort, O’Bryan said, was informing families of the increased tuition assistance available from the archdiocese and the CEF.

Tuition affordability has always been the biggest roadblock to attracting families, said O’Bryan, who has worked at the school since 1996 and served as principal for the last decade. O’Bryan also decided to lower the tuition cost and instituted one rate for everyone — doing away with separate rates for Catholics and non-Catholics.

“If we can get them in the door, I can get them to stay,” O’Bryan said, noting that once families see the school and meet the faculty they are sold.

The number of families that applied to the CEF for tuition assistance increased from 37 last year (before the new effort was announced) to 56 this year, O’Bryan said.

Richard A. Lechleiter, president of the Catholic Education Foundation, said he wasn’t at all surprised by the enrollment increase.

“We all felt like there were more kids in that part of the county that wanted to be a part of St. Catherine. We knew that it would take additional financial resources, no doubt about it,” he said.

Lechleiter said he encouraged Father Troy Overton, the previous pastor of St. Catherine, and O’Bryan to reach out to the community and say, “The answer is yes!’ ”

“Don’t wait for them to come to see us. Let’s reach out to families more directly and invite them to join our community and to tell them up front … that the foundation and the diocese will help take some of the financial pressure off of the family,” Lechleiter said in a phone interview last week.

And the school has done just that. With the help of the archdiocese, the school sent a mass mailing with information about the school. And the school has started inviting the public to seasonal events, such as Breakfast with Santa. The next Breakfast with Santa is right around the corner, too, on Dec. 5. The school has also hired a part-time public relations and communications staff member to build awareness about the school.

“We reached out to the community more. We started making sure newspapers, radio, TV heard from us,” O’Bryan said.

Situated in the southern tip of Nelson County, St. Catherine Academy is one of only seven archdiocesan elementary schools outside Jefferson County. It offers preschool through eighth-grade in a mixed-grade format. Kindergarten and first-grade are in the same classroom; second- and third-grade are together; fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade share a classroom; and seventh- and eighth-grade are together. Classes split-off for certain subjects, including reading and math.

The student body is composed of members of St. Catherine parish, as well as Immaculate Conception Church in Culvertown, Ky., Holy Trinity Church in Fredericktown, Ky., St. Vincent de Paul Church in New Hope, Ky., and St. Thomas Church in Bardstown, Ky. There are also about a dozen non-Catholic students, O’Bryan said.

Father Christopher Lubecke, the administrator of St. Catherine and Immaculate Conception churches, said parents are seeking a more well-rounded education, one he believes St. Catherine provides.

Father Lubecke noted that the school seeks to educate the whole person. Not only do students receive intellectual formation, he said, but they receive spiritual formation as well.

O’Bryan noted that the school also has received tremendous support from the St. Catherine Alumni Association. The group hosts several fundraising events for the school throughout the year.

“It’s allowed us to do projects that let’s people know we are fixing up the school. It makes people feel better knowing that we’ll be here” in the future, she said.

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