Catholic School Matters

November 18, 2018

Reframing Enrollment

Last week I was in Baltimore for the Education Committee and the conversation there (just like at CLS!) turned to enrollment numbers. Have you noticed that conversations about enrollment in Catholic schools tend to cause discomfort? We talk about the number of students we’ve lost since last year, since 2008, or since 1960. This hypersensitivity to enrollment has caused some schools to adopt a simple mission—survival. But keeping the doors open shouldn’t be a mission.

I cracked open Ron Heifetz last week and re-ead Leadership on the Line, his 2008 work with Marty Linsky. This is the third time I’ve read it. It’s supplanted Good to Great in my toolbox because it’s focus on technical versus adaptive problems is a mental framework which helps me approach problem-solving. For a simple explanation, watch Heifetz explain it in this 6-minute video.

Technical challenges are solved by experts. You break your arm, the doctor fixes it or your car breaks down, the mechanic gets it running again. While the solutions might be complicated, they are simply handled by experts with the proper training. Enrollment in Catholic schools is not a technical problem. If it was, read an article like this one, apply the lessons, and off you go! Isn’t that what our stakeholders want? They imagine a new marketing plan, a new program, or the right presentation at Sunday Mass will transform enrollment. Instead, enrollment is an adaptive challenge.

How do we know that enrollment qualifies as an adaptive challenge? On page 60, he lists the characteristics of an adaptive challenges which include the need for people’s hearts and minds to change, the need for more learning, the persistence of conflict, and the presence of crisis. All of these exist.

Courtesy of this article on, let’s look at Heifetz’s adaptive framework to look at the adaptive challenge of enrollment in Catholic schools:

1. Get on the balcony. Do you see the big picture? This is not a new problem. In fact, enrollment in American Catholic elementary schools declined by nearly 2 million between 1965 and 1975 and an additional 1 million over the next 40 years. This is not a new problem. We need to pay attention to the national trends and stop pretending that your individual school problems are unique. And then start looking around to find where enrollment is increasing.

2. Identify the problem. You need to confront the brutal facts and figure out why your market share is decreasing.

3. Regulate distress. Heifetz also refers to this as “orchestrating the conflict.” We want to make sure we don’t turn up the heat too much (driving people to despair) or ignore it altogether.

4. Maintain disciplined attention. Locate strategies to tackle the tough issues. Pace the work.

5. Give work back to people. It’s not all on you. We need help from pastors, superintendents, teachers, advisory councils/boards, students, and parents. Find a way to get everyone involved.

6. Protect voices from below. We need to welcome feedback and ideas from all stakeholders and not pretend that all the best ideas reside in our offices.

My fear is that some school leaders through their hyperfocus on keeping the doors open have lost sight of other important measures of success. Heifetz provides a great mental model for tackling the adaptive challenge of enrollment.

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Dr. Tim Uhl

Big picture

Community Engagement

  1. I'm putting together a collection of scenarios of Catholic leadership as a means to teach Catholic leaders how to develop their own moral leadership compass. I'll preview a scenario each month and ask you to submit any ideas of Catholic school leadership moral dilemmas to This month's example:

  • You receive a call on Sunday afternoon from your art teacher. The 32 year old married mother of two reports that she was picked up for DUI after a dinner party the night before. She has been teaching at your high school for five years, is not a member of the parish, and is willing to submit to a substance abuse evaluation. She is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her job. Your diocesan policy lists crimes and negative publicity as reasons for termination. You are not sure whether the information will become public although she did say that one of the high school parents was an arresting officer.

American Catholic News

Journal of Catholic Education

  1. Here is the link to the latest edition. Below are three interesting articles.
  2. Great study on regional Catholic School systems--how they formed, what worked, etc.
  3. Patrick Manning of Seton Hall studies "Disintegrating Worldviews and the Future of Catholic Education: Addressing the Deep Roots of Disaffiliation." This is a long read but fascinating. Dr. Manning is a future podcast guest!
  4. "High School Options and Post-Secondary Student Success" is a great look at what is working in Catholic schools.

Leadership Links

Teaching & Learning


The American Council on Education issued a report on the racial unrest at the University of Missouri. It's a long read but an interesting study of the context of the controversy as well as the fallout.

What I'm Up To

This week, I'll be in Great Falls first and then join the Billings Catholic Schools for their Thanksgiving Mass and then will head to Seattle for Thanksgiving. The next week I'll be stopping in to Hays to check on Mission Grade School and then on to Great Falls and Missoula for board meetings.

This week's podcast will focus on new leaders in Catholic education starting with Mary Pat Donaghue, the new Executive Director of the Secretariat's office at the USSCB; Tom Novotney, the new Chief Adminstrator of Cedar Valley Catholic Schools (Iowa); three new Catholic superintendents (Janet Eaton of Wichita, Samuel Torres of San Bernardino, and Debra Haney of Galveston-Houston), and the new principals of two new Catholic schools (Nicholas Morgan of Epiphany Catholic School in Katy and Annette Zaleski of St. Jeanne de Lestonnac HS in Temecula). It's a great episode combining voices of new leaders in Catholic education!

Here is the link to the podcast. Here are videos showing you how to download and subscribe to a podcast on iTunes and how to download and subscribe a podcast on Android.

  • Monday: Great Falls meetings
  • Tuesday: All-School Mass in Billings
  • Wednesday: travel day & Catholic School Matters Radio Hour with new leaders
  • Thursday-Fri: holiday
  • Mon, 11/26: Office (Helena)
  • Tuesday 11/27: Visit to Mission Grade School (Hays) & Great Falls Board meeting
  • Wednesday 11/28: Missoula Board meeting
  • Thursday 11/29: Office (Helena)
  • Friday 11/30: Office (Helena)

Miles next 2 weeks: 1,892 driving miles

Miles travelled in 2018-19: 17,563 road miles; 29,497 air miles

Last 5 Books

  1. The Relentless Mercy of God (2017) by Joseph Corpora, CSC
  2. The Illusion of Technique (1979) by William Barrett
  3. Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (2015) by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen
  4. Using Conflict Theory (2002) by Otomar J. Bartos & Paul Wehr
  5. Leadership Can Be Taught (2005) by Sharon Daloz Parks

Click this link for a full list of my professional reading along with links to Wed Book Blogs

For Montana Administrators & Teachers

Past Issues of Catholic School Matters

November 4, 2018 "Looking at Disaffiliation"

October 21, 2018 "Getting out of the Ditch"

October 7, 2018 "Truth, Mercy, and the Synod"

September 23, 2018 "Native American Experience"

September 16, 2018 "How Are We Forming our Leaders?"

September 9, 2018 "Where is Your Attention?"