Area Catholic Schools are looking to the past to pave the way for a more secure future.

At St. Vincent de Paul School in Mays Landing, a group of grandparents spent Thursday morning playing bingo with their grandchildren, then organizing a fund-raising flea market and planning special events for the students.

“We are setting an example for our children and grandchildren,” said Bev Beattie of Egg Harbor Township, a member of the year-old Grandparents Association. “They see us involved in their school.”

This week is Catholic Schools Week, and schools are welcoming families and guests to consider a Catholic education. They are also looking out into the community, asking alumni and family members to help their schools remain open and thrive.

“There is more emphasis on engaging alumni in the life of the schools,” said Nicholas Regina, executive director of the Camden Diocese schools. “We are trying to weather a very challenging economy.”

No one is more aware of the need for outreach than Charles “Chalky” Ottinger of Vineland. The Sacred Heart High School graduate who currently heads the school, helped with the successful effort to keep it from closing last year but knows the work is far from over. Even before he returned to run the school, Ottinger visited potential students at their homes.

Built to hold around 350 students, Ottinger said this year’s enrollment is 178 students. The goal is to reach 250, and about 20 new students have already pre-registered for the 2013-2014 school year.

Virtually every Catholic school now has an Advancement Director, and the schools have organized recruitment programs and annual giving campaigns. Some are seeing results in more robust funding and higher enrollment.

“(This school year) we brought in our biggest freshman class, 99 students” said Anne Liberto, director of advancement at St. Joseph High School in Hammonton. The school holds an open house in the fall, then stays in touch with recruits with a regular newsletter.

“People appreciate that personal touch,” Liberto said. “We know there is more competition now with choice and charter schools.”

Assumption Regional School in Galloway Township will hold an open house Saturday that includes displays by student clubs. Assumption and St. Joseph in Somers Point have also benefited from adding preschool programs, which both generate funds and give families an early introduction to the school they might then not want to leave. St. Mary’s School in the East Vineland section of Buena Vista Township is even anticipating a waiting list for preschool and possibly first and second grade, Advancement Director Carol Kirchman said.

“It’s all by word of mouth from the families of the school,” Kirchman said.

Fundraising has also become crucial to keeping the schools affordable. State aid for non-public schools has shrunk, limiting funds that had been available for special education, nursing and technology services.

St. Joseph’s annual gala helped pay for 30 new computer stations at the Somers Point school this year, Advancement Director Ellen Fletcher said.

Alumni donations help fund scholarships and need-based financial aid, especially at the high schools. Assumption Regional is rolling out a “support-a-family” program, linking a family in need with someone who can help them. St. Vincent de Paul has annual scholarship donors, an “adopt a student” plan and grandparents who help pay for their grandchildren’s education.

“Some families have two or three children, so aid is more important than ever now,” Assumption Advancement Director Cathryn Flammer said.

Holy Spirit High School is beginning a capital campaign to raise money for renovations to the school and financial aid and scholarships. The school is offering a dual credit criminal justice course taught by a Richard Stockton College professor and focuses on the value it provides students in helping them get into college with scholarships.

Wildwood Catholic High School will add a marine science and forensic science class in 2013-14, expanding on the the law and medical seminars it already offers.

Even students get involved in recruitment.

Sacred Heart’s Lion Ambassadors visit elementary schools to recruit. Ayla Gentiletti, 18, of Vineland, said they relay an important message.

"We may be small, but we're big in heart," she said. "Our teachers really do care."

But challenges remain.

Dolores Zimm, Sacred Heart's director of advancement, said the school decided to hold an open house Tuesday based on the success of one held last year. But just one mother and daughter visited during the first hour of the two-hour event.

Vineland resident Charlotte Markart said she thought Sacred Heart would be a safer alternative for her daughter, Jennifer, 14.

Jennifer Markart said Sacred Heart could provide a better learning environment.

"It will provide a better opportunity for college," she said.

Charlotte Markart said the primary obstacle is cost. According to Sacred Heart's web site, tuition for the current school year totals $7,995.

Ottinger said they are working on ways to provide more aid.

"Sacred Heart is part of the community," Ottinger said. "It's always been a part of the community. It would be really sad for it not to be part of the community."

One other option that could help all Catholic Schools is private school vouchers, which have struggled to get a foothold in New Jersey. George Corwell, director for education at the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said they will continue to lobby for including parochial schools among the state’s school choice options.

“We haven’t given up on school choice,” he said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197