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Spreading the word in Santa Fe

July 15, 2018

Dirk Steffens was on the road with his dog, Rocky, for 40 days and 40 nights. On the surface, it was just a stockbroker’s journey to Alaska.

Underneath, that road trip in the summer of 2004 was about Steffens’ conversion to the Catholic faith and his newfound desire to share biblical teachings with others.

The significance of the sojourn’s 40 days was not lost on him. The Bible is full of references to 40, from the 40 days of rain that led to Noah’s massive flood to Moses’ 40 years wandering the desert to Jesus’ 40-day fast before he began his ministry.

During his trip, said 45-year-old Steffens, the new principal of the Santo Niño Regional Catholic School, “I found myself. That was my little stroll through the wilderness.”

He left his career in the investment industry and enrolled in a theology program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Then he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Steffens, a native of Seminole, Texas, whose most recent job was director of campus ministries and theology department chairman at Reicher Catholic High School in Waco, Texas, now has his hands full with the challenges of boosting enrollment at a small Catholic elementary school that’s far under capacity.

The south-side Santo Niño serves about 250 students from prekindergarten to sixth grade. It could serve twice that number.

Declining enrollment is a problem at Catholic schools nationwide. According to data from the National Catholic Education Association, enrollment has dropped by more than 19 percent — or over 435,000 students — in the last 10 years. The number of Catholic schools in the U.S. also has fallen since 2008, the report said, with 1,336 institutions closing or consolidating.

Some experts say the problem is rooted in high tuition rates. Others say an overreliance on lay people to teach classes, rather than clergy, might be off-putting for Catholic parents and students.

“It’s a challenge,” the ever-smiling Steffens said of the effort to recruit more students to Santo Niño, where tuition ranges from $5,400 to $5,900 annually, depending on grade level. “Parents need to know they are getting value for their money.”

The school offers about $250,000 a year in financial aid.

Steffens, who stepped into the leadership role just a month ago, has plans in the works to draw more students and develop name recognition for the school.

He wants to build up the school’s athletics program and offer more visual and performing arts. He envisions a theater and soccer and track field on campus — if he can find money for the projects.

That, he said, will take an “awful lot of work and an awful lot of time.”

In the nearer future, he will hire a development director to help boost Santo Niño’s profile and hopes to strengthen the school’s connection to the Catholic faith, finding more time for prayer during the day.

While not all of the students at Santo Niño are Catholic — Steffens estimates about 15 percent are not — he believes a strong focus on the school’s Catholic mission is vital to ensuring its success.

“We have to look at the mission of the Catholic Church and get our name out there,” he said. “This is not a job; it’s a mission.”

Another challenge, Steffens said, is “the anger in the culture of the country. … Too often, Catholic schools become an oasis in the desert, and it’s difficult to bring joy back into the classroom. The world is tough, but we can make it better in this school.”

He plans to ask every teacher at Santo Niño, “Where is your joy?” That, he said, should inspire them to start thinking about why they are serving as teachers.

Steffens’ sense of joy was obvious to parent Valerie Montoya, a member of the school committee that vetted him.

“The one thing he said that stands out is that he will bring joy and faith into our community,” she said. “His overall positive attitude was almost overwhelming. You have a conversation with him, and you can’t help but smile.”

Increasing enrollment won’t be easy, Montoya said. Part of the difficulty is that few people in Santa Fe seem to know a Catholic elementary school operates in the city.

“When people ask me, ‘Where do your daughters to go school?’ and I say, ‘Santo Niño,’ they say they have never even heard of it,” Montoya said.

“So maybe his getting the word out in the community about us will be a priority.”

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