Discover the Difference: Enrollment Growth in the Unlikeliest of Times

by Diocese of Des Moines | October 23, 2020

Student waves to principal on first day of school

Catholic school enrollment peaked in the 1960s with more than 5 million students attending Catholic schools nationwide. Since that time, however, enrollment has steadily declined to around 2 million students today. This enrollment decline resulted from external factors including rising operational costs, increasing secularization and a competitive school market (Smarick, 2015). 

The viability of Catholic schools is inextricably linked to enrollment success, but factors influencingnull parental choice regarding education are changing. To respond to this challenge, Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Des Moines have become nimble, relational and innovative. Diocesan schools have modernized instruction through the use of technology. Faculty and staff are better prepared for the ever-changing landscape of education due to enhancements in professional development. Finally, the expansion of educational services at diocesan schools to include diverse learner support, language immersion, and mental health services has broadened the diocese's ability to meet the needs of all learners.

Just as diocesan schools were beginning to experience enrollment management success, a global pandemic turned education on its head. Facing tremendous uncertainty while adapting to new educational methods and strategies, schools had little time to focus on enrollment growth. Yet, schools across the Diocese of Des Moines were not only retaining their current families but had new families enrolling. One school, St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic School, grew by more than 35 percent in one year - unprecedented growth for any private school. 

nullThe key to this enrollment growth is likely connected to the educational continuity Catholic schools in the diocese provided to families during these times of uncertainty. Last spring as schools across the state closed, Diocese of Des Moines Catholic Schools - including St. Luke the Evangelist - quickly implemented a high-quality interactive distance learning program for all students. Classes transitioned from a traditional synchronous model of education where students learn together at the same time, to an asynchronous model where students learn apart and independently through virtual distance learning facilitated through Learning Management Systems including Google Classroom and Seesaw. 

"We understand the importance of establishing a positive, safe and supportive learning environment as our students navigate the unprecedented challenges due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic," shared Donna Bishop, Superintendent of Schools. "Our schools continue to work with families to meet their individual needs. We will not allow our students to miss out on a high-quality education because of this virus." 

The diocese spent the summer months refining its educational plans, programs, and services in preparation for a seamless return to learning in the fall that provided families the option of either five-day-a-week in-person instruction or a fully-remote learning option. At St. Luke, mitigation efforts to keep students and faculty safe included desk dividers, outdoor classrooms, student cohorts, use of face coverings, physical distancing, and enhanced cleaning procedures. 

"I believe our return to learn plan coupled with distance learning success in the spring is the reason why our school enrollment has grown so much in one short year," shared Misty Hade, St. Luke the Evangelist principal. "The COVID pandemic has created so many unknowns for families and parents have begun to explore options that will best meet their child's educational needs in this current environment."

This enrollment growth has not only benefitted the school community spiritually and socially, but such growth has provided the financial resources needed to further invest in academic programs, services, faculty, and extracurriculars. Bottom line - enrollment growth of this magnitude has strengthened the school's operational vitality, ultimately benefitting its students and parish community.

In turn, the school has supported this wave of new students by ensuring ample supplies are on hand and by coordinating space to support 63 additional students. Although schools typically place orders for supplies and books in the spring based on enrollment projections, Hade noted that she has been diligent about continuing to assess material needs for each classroom throughout the summer months and into the fall. Should enrollment growth continue into the next school year, Hade said the school will have to explore ordering additional classroom furniture and the possibility of moving up a timeline for building expansion.

While change is hard, growth is exciting and full of opportunities. Faculty and staff have adapted to the growth by demonstrating the school's culture and charisms with new families and students so they can experience the St. Luke's difference. Their collective hope is that new families will feel at home and want to remain a part of the school community for years to come. 

"We are a tight-knit, family community in the larger community of Ankeny where we see each individual as a child of God with all of their unique differences that make up our school," exclaimed Hade. "All faculty and staff will know your child's name and have a vested interest in their success. As parents, you will know the other families in our school and your child's classmates. This connectedness is so important in our society, now more than ever."

While most of the school's enrollment growth occurred this past August, Hade commented that she continues to receive a high volume of inquiries about enrollment for this school year and next school year. To accommodate these requests, St. Luke's has empowered a team of school ambassadors to help share a positive message about the school and answer questions prospective families may have. Additionally, the school is opening up registration early this year on December 1. Families who register early will not only secure a place for their child at the school but will also receive a registration discount. Although some grades have waitlists, Hade said there are still available seats in kindergarten, first, fourth, seventh, and eighth grades. 

The newest school in the Diocese of Des Moines, St. Luke the Evangelist, opened in 2015 to support the growing Ankeny community. Students in kindergarten - eighth grade receive an education rooted in Catholic values that provides a caring, creative and quality learning environment. To learn more or to inquire about enrollment opportunities, visit or call 515-985-7074. 


Smarick, A. & Robson, K. (2015). Catholic school renaissance: A wise giver’s guide to strengthening a national asset. Washington, DC: The Philanthropy Roundtable. ISBN: 978-0-9861474-3-2. 

Diocese of Des Moines

The Diocese of Des Moines, created in 1911, serves people over a 12,446 square mile area in the southwestern quadrant of Iowa, including 23 counties.