High schools complete strategic plan process; implementation set this fall

Matthew Vander Vennet, director of advancement and development at The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign, makes a point as the advancement committee for the Partners in Mission process at the school gets busy on April 29. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

CHAMPAIGN — The High School of Saint Thomas More became the fifth and final diocesan high school to put together a strategic plan this month, with the guidance of Partners in Mission, a Boston-based consulting firm engaged by the Office of Catholic Schools. With the approval of Bishop Louis Tylka, all the plans are due to be implemented in the fall.

The process began with a “soft launch” last June and a “hard launch” last September and involved Schlarman Academy in Danville, Marquette Academy in Ottawa, Notre Dame High School in Peoria, and Alleman High School in Rock Island, as well as The High School of Saint Thomas More. A sixth diocesan high school, Central Catholic in Bloomington, had already worked with Partners in Mission to develop a strategic plan two years ago.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” said Anthony Corapi, chief operating officer at The High School of Saint Thomas More, as the weekend retreat to write their strategic plan began.

With information collected across eight domains — academics and technology, advancement, Catholic identity, enrollment, facilities, finance, governance and student life — committees sat down to write goals and objectives for as many as six priorities in each area. Dr. Bob Tift of Partners in Mission said that by the time the weekend retreat ends, 95 percent of the strategic plan is written.

What follows is some final tweaking and then listening sessions with faculty, parents and other stakeholders. The last step is for school administrators to develop action steps.

Partners in Mission was brought in at the request of Bishop Louis Tylka, who wanted to help the high schools assess where they stand and what is needed to grow stronger for the future.

“Thank you very much for the good work you’re about to do and, of course, have already done,” Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of diocesan schools, told those gathered for the first session of the weekend retreat at Saint Thomas More.

“I bring you the great gratitude of our bishop, Bishop Tylka. He is very enthused about the process,” she said. “What you take away from here will be very, very important.”

TRANSFORMATION IS GOAL

“This process is daunting,” Corapi told The Catholic Post. “If you said to someone, ‘Write a strategic plan for your organization,’ if you’ve never done it and you want to be in depth about it, it’s daunting.”

Partners in Mission kept them on track and guided them through the process, Corapi explained.

“Theirs is such a tried and true method so it’s easy. There’s a lot of work, but it’s not a mystery,” he said. “Just follow the playbook and go. I really appreciate that.”

Sister M. Bridget Martin, FSGM, principal, said it can be hard to hear the feedback.

“At one point, Bob said we’re looking at all our warts, but it’s good because we have to figure out what the issues are in order to make it better, “ she said. “This process that we’re in now is setting the road map for where we’re going.”

The last strategic plan written at Saint Thomas More is dated 2014 and there were some things that did not get addressed then, according to Sister Bridget, who said the new strategic plan “almost feels like a living thing. It’s almost organic and will keep us going.”

“I never cease to be amazed at how wonderful the finished product is when you get a group of passionate people together to share their insights and their love and their vision for the school,” Tift told The Post. “I think for people to make this level of commitment to doing this for six months they really have to have that passion for the school.”

He said working with Schlarman Academy, Marquette Academy, Peoria Notre Dame and Alleman had been “just wonderful” and the outcomes have been “fabulous.”

“We like them to be transformational, we like them to be really forward thinking about how to take that school to the next level,” Tift said of the strategic plans, adding that he loves to see the collective energy that comes from the conversations that take place at each school.

NOT A BUZZ WORD

While neither Tift nor Weiss were able to go into details about the plans at this time, they did say that people nationally and locally shared concerns about governance, enrollment and finances.

“Strategic planning is not just a buzz word,” Weiss said. “It really is a blueprint. It is something for the schools and their entire community to follow as to what it is we want to try to accomplish.”

What the high schools are doing is no different than what families have to do when they make a budget and plan for the future, she said. While the strategic plans written at this spring’s retreats asked schools to do that for the next five years, it isn’t the last time they should do it, she added.

“Why are we doing all this? We want Catholic secondary education in our diocese because our end result is we want to get our students to heaven,” Weiss said.

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