St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington opened with about 650 students in its classrooms this year.
“This community knows this enrollment is not what it was,” Richard Bayhan, St. Mark’s new principal, told The Dialog recently.
He said that as someone new to the campus, it’s hard for him to know exactly why enrollment declined over the years, “but here’s what I would imagine.”
St. Mark’s, “like many schools that have been wildly successful,” Bayhan said, took its big student body for granted but “as the economy changed and the world changed” it was slow in realizing that “students don’t just magically appear at your door in August. You’ve got to earn the students that you bring in.”
Also, “parents are much savvier shoppers” when considering schools, Bayhan, 62, said.
As principal, the Detroit native said he plans to show parents the true value of a St. Mark’s education.
“If you’re looking at just dollars, it would certainly make sense for a parent to look at a charter school,” Bayhan said. “That cost of zero” is attractive.
“We at St. Mark’s have forgotten to inform parents of the other dimension of what our school is all about. Our job is to create young men and women who understand right from wrong, who understand the importance of a moral compass, who are able to take their rightful position of leadership in whatever they choose to do whether in their careers, the community or the church.
“That part of education is necessarily missing from an education in a charter school,” Bayhan said. “The question ultimately is, ‘Is it expensive?’ And my answer would be, ‘Compared to what?’ Because I think the values the kids walk away with from here are priceless.”
A new reality
The values are priceless but the education costs $12,500 a year. Tuition wasn’t that high when the school’s hallways were crowded between classes.
“There is a new reality,” Bayhan said. “The Catholic schools that had 1,200 and 1,500 kids, that’s not the reality anymore. There are a handful of them because of their legendary status in a community,” but “I don’t think a school of 1,200 or even 1,000 kids is a reality for St. Mark’s.
“A school of 800 to 1,000? I do think that’s a reality. I think we will be able to attract students to reach those numbers which would keep our school functioning very comfortably,” he said.
Bayhan’s confidence in St. Mark’s growth comes from the fact he’s helped boost enrollment as a principal at other schools.
His experience includes running a Catholic high school in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“It could only hold 300 students to begin with but when I got there it was getting dangerously close to 200,” Bayhan recalled.
“When I left seven years later, we had begun construction of a new school building on the outskirts of Ann Arbor that could hold 500 students.”
The principal is excited that St. Mark’s, which opened in 1969, has resources in its community to help the school flourish.
“There are things that go on in this school in terms of academic excellence that people are not aware of,” he said.
“I have never been in a school where teachers speak so highly of the students constantly.”
From the day Bayhan met the faculty last May, he said, “teachers have said, ‘You will be amazed at what our students are like.’ So during the summertime, when student council would meet, I’d go talk to them. Here we are on the third day of school and I’m thoroughly convinced those teachers are right. The kids have made me feel extraordinarily welcomed. They have very positive, upbeat attitudes. They show real leadership.”
Bayhan praised the St. Mark faculty’s devotion to Catholic education.
“They believe significantly in what they do,” the principal said. “We’ve got an extraordinary number of teachers who have been here 20 years or longer … and they’ve really made me feel incredibly welcome. They really do believe we can turn the corner.”
Bayhan wants to “bring people of this community into this school, both students and parents, who really buy into what we are,” people “who can really benefit from the expertise and love that our faculty is capable of giving.”
St. Mark’s now has an alumni base of more than 40 years of graduates, many with children they have sent to St. Mark’s.
“My goal is to make that group feel much more welcomed and very much a part of the school of 2015,” Bayhan said.
“I’ve run into alums who are very proud that they went to school here. I want them not only proud, I want them reconnected.”
With the talents of St. Mark’s students and faculty, plus the commitment of parents and alumni, Bayhan faces the task of building up St. Mark’s future with optimism.
“It really is a task that can be done,” he said.
Recently, Bayhan was principal at St. Mary’s High School in Rutherford, N.J. Among the Catholic highs schools where he served is St. Mary’s in Annapolis, Md.
At St. Mark’s he succeeds Carol Ripken. She served at the school from 2012 and has returned to her post as assistant superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools.