When she assumed the helm at St. Bernardine’s in July 2007, Zenza Laws knew she would have her work cut out for her. The primary challenge facing the small Catholic school has been-and remains-boosting its beleaguered enrollment.
She immediately hit the ground running, appealing to parents and distributing flyers and brochures throughout the community. Laws’ efforts appeared to pay off: In a month-and-a-half, the number of students enrolled for the 2007-08 school year jumped 41 percent, from 85 to 120. And with six months before the 2008-09 school year commences, Laws said more than two-thirds of her students already have registered to come back.
Results like that seem typical for the self-described go-getter who knew in first-grade that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I truly believe that I was led to this vocation by God,” Laws said, adding that she never missed a day of school in her life-including college. “I just have a love for education.”
Raised in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood and a product of the Chicago public school system, the forty-something Laws was encouraged by her high school principal to attend a Catholic college.
“My mother had always wanted me to attend a Catholic school, but she could not afford it,” Laws said.
She received her bachelor’s in education and communications from Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, and began her career 28 years ago teaching seventh-grade at Holy Angels School on the city’s south side. It was there that she began implementing her educational philosophy.
“Education is the foundation for success and therefore should be taken seriously,” Laws said. “I also feel that each child has a positive quality that should be recognized to promote high self esteem.”
After a stint at St. Mel/Holy Ghost, Laws found herself with additional responsibilities at St. Thomas Aquinas (now St. Martin de Porres) as a junior high instructor, curriculum developer and ultimately assistant principal. She quickly realized her calling.
“You can make more of a difference as a principal than as a teacher,” Laws said.
She returned to Dominican University, where she completed her master’s in educational administration in 1999, and then spent the next seven years serving as principal of the Academy of St. Benedict the African in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
When she learned that St. Bernardine was looking for a principal, Laws applied for the position. The small community and its diverse population were two of its biggest draws, she said, and beefing up its enrollment is a challenge she seems to relish.
“Our enrollment has increased and we are on target with our budget. We are remaining positive. Closing is not an issue,” Laws said, firmly.
The Archdiocese of Chicago agrees with that latter assessment. According to Ryan Blackburn, director of School Marketing and Communications, the archdiocese has no intention of consolidating or closing schools this year.
Back in May 2007, the archdiocese anticipated a decline of 4.5 percent in elementary school enrollments, but actually experienced a decline of only 2.3 percent.
“That’s the most stable enrollment we’ve seen in the past seven years,” Blackburn said. “The archdiocese is hopeful that enrollments will continue this trend toward stabilization.”
According to the latest statistics available from the archdiocese, 73 percent of the typical elementary school’s income needs are met through tuition. But Pastor Patrick Tucker admitted that St. Bernardine is not typical and that the parish is forced to subsidize the school’s budget.
Several years ago, enrollment figures hovered at 200. Financially the school was 96 percent self-sufficient.
“Our current enrollment is down from about four years ago, but we are starting to build up,” Tucker said. He pointed to the efforts of the school board, faculty, parents and Laws as factors responsible for this growth.
“She wants the school to be the best that it can be,” Tucker said of the new principal.
Both Laws and school board member Peter Shorner pointed to additional efforts that the school recently has undertaken to increase enrollment, such as conducting school tours with prospective families, advertising in local newspapers and distributing lawn signs to increase awareness of the school and its place in the community. Laws added that St. Bernardine is reaching out to other parishes without schools, and she has recruited a number of parents and parishioners outside of the school board to assist in getting the word. The board also will address a possible financial incentive for referring new families to the school.
“Our role is to achieve self sufficiency,” Shorner said. “And we are working hard toward that goal. Of course, when you get someone in here with [Laws’] kind of energy, good things are bound to happen. She’s very enthusiastic, and the feedback that [the board has] been getting is that parents really like her outlook and attitude.”
The archdiocese also is in St. Bernardine’s corner. According to Blackburn, its recently implemented strategic plan lists as one of its objectives assisting Catholic schools in increasing and maintaining their enrollments. The organization offers marketing clinics, online resources and consultation to help schools achieve this goal.
Blackburn added that the school also can tap into an $8.2 million operating grant that the archdiocese has established.
Overall, Laws is pleased with the results of her and the school board’s efforts. “There’s been a lot of interest in St. Bernardine,” she said. “We’re getting a lot of calls, and we already have registered a number of new families. But the biggest advertisement for the school is word of mouth. When parents are happy, they will share the news with their neighbors and friends.”