There is reason for optimism at Saint Mark’s High School these days. After seeing enrollment dwindle for several years, the diocesan high school is getting ready to welcome its biggest freshman class in about a decade. While final numbers are not in, as of April 29, 190 eighth-grade students had committed to becoming Spartans in the fall, an increase of 65 over this year’s class.
That’s not the only good news this year at Saint Mark’s. Annual giving is up 26 percent over last year, principal Thomas Fertal revealed in a video to the school community last week. In an interview, Fertal and other administrators attributed the positive news to a few factors, among those Saint Mark’s 50th anniversary, new leadership and a willingness to try new things.
Saint Mark’s once enrolled some 1,500 students, placing it among the largest in New Castle County, public or private. But recently, that number has hovered between 400 and 500. Fertal said that was not because of a lack of interest in the school. There are a lot of proud alumni all over Delaware and elsewhere, and the 50th anniversary was an opportunity to bring them back.
“An anniversary year can be very successful if it’s done right, and I think we’ve done it right,” Fertal said.
There were events all year, and that creates energy, he said.
“Is there life in the building? Are things happening? And we definitely created that sense that there’s things happening,” he said.
Another factor is new leadership. Fertal is in his first year as principal and brought with him experience as both a principal and a president, with a focus primarily on advancement and admissions. He has relied on the experience extensively this year.
“I was able to, by my nature and by design, focus on advancement and admissions. And you’re going to see results where you put in the effort. So those were my main things. There’s definitely a renewed effort into advancement and admissions,” he said.
But, he stressed, it is not only him, or about him. There is also a new vice principal, admissions director and associate director of advancement. New, he said, doesn’t guarantee success, but it creates a different dynamic.
One member of the team who has been there is advancement director Peter Curcio. He said annual giving has been strong, as has retention of donors, but it went to the next level this year. It has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Curcio, who has been at the school since 2015, said he has a lot of freedom and creativity to do his job. The feeling in the office is that most anything is worth a try, and if it doesn’t work, they’ll adjust. An example is the school’s athletics hall of fame, which launched recently with an induction ceremony at the school. School officials had planned on 200 people attending, but 600 showed up.
“The energy just keeps building, and crazy things happen when you get creative and you get things going,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll tweak it. But, knock on wood, things have gone pretty well so far.”
Rob DeMasi, a 2009 graduate, joined the staff last August as director of admissions. He has been a key factor in generating interest in Saint Mark’s, according to Fertal.
“He knows the community, he knows the elementaries, he knows the graduates. The man is a workaholic. He’s worked it. Everyone who expresses an interest in Saint Mark’s, he looks at them like, ‘we’re gonna get them.’ He’ll work his tail off,” Fertal said.
DeMasi said coming back to his alma mater was his “calling.” He is putting in long days, but it doesn’t feel like work. When he meets with potential families, he is honest and transparent about what Saint Mark’s is and what it isn’t. He acknowledges the enrollment trouble the school has experienced, but it is not the only nonpublic school that has seen a drop in students.
The key, for Saint Mark’s and other Catholic schools, is to effectively communicate the value of paying for a Catholic education.
“We’re able to dive in to the deeper subjects. Why we’re here, what we’re meant to be while we’re on this earth. We can dive into those questions, whereas other schools can’t,” he said.
DeMasi said he would not have accepted the job had Saint Mark’s not had the right people in place. He believes in the vision Fertal has for the school. During their interview last summer, he knew 10 minutes in that this was a position he wanted.
Increased giving to the school also has allowed Saint Mark’s to offer a number of scholarships. While that helps, Fertal said, parents are not going to pay for an education they don’t believe in.
He makes no apologies for being aggressive about assisting families who want a Catholic education. It was never intended only for the wealthy.
“Since when did Catholic education become a thing that’s only made available for those who can pay $12 or $14 or $20,000?” he asked. “That flies in the face of everything I believe in for Catholic education. We’re the diocesan high school, and that idea that any family that wants a Catholic education should be able to get one, that’s not just conjecture. That’s not just some pie-in-the-sky idea. I believe that heart, mind, body and soul.”
His willingness to work with families to help meet their financial needs is balanced by the families’ belief in what Saint Mark’s is offering. He asks them if they want to be part of the culture of the school. Fertal wants to know that they are invested in the mission of the school.
That is one of the keys for DeMasi. He said the vision for the school has been renewed to set Saint Mark’s up for the next 50 years. As he was studying the origins of the school, he found that the diocese wanted it to be a hub of activity “for young and old to grow in faith.” He said Saint Mark’s has honored that vision this year.
A new campus master plan is in the works and will be released in the coming months. New academic initiatives will be revealed at this fall’s open house. Alumni events will continue to evolve and expand. All of that will help Saint Mark’s keep its positive momentum going, Fertal said.
“At no point, ever, can a Catholic school sit back and go, ‘Thanks. We’re good right where we are.’ You always have to be evaluating,” he said.
“We can bring in a large freshman class, but if we don’t deliver on what we say the Saint Mark’s experience is, that goes away. If we do deliver, if we do provide that phenomenal Catholic school experience that we’ve promised, then, yeah, next year it gets easier.”
That also helps with annual giving, Curcio said. “I can say to donors with confidence, ‘Your contribution does make a difference.’ Look at the scholarship money we’ve gotten, the kids that are coming in here. The momentum is building, and people want to support winners. And that’s what’s going on right now. We’ve had a lot of success.”