If Lutheran High School in La Verne were a state and the U.S. Census Bureau were measuring its population density, it would rank right up there with Alaska, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. The sprawling campus on Fruit Street north of Foothill Boulevard sits on 10 prime acres, giving its 99 students ample room to roam … and learn.
In the wake of the great recession, when many out-of-work or underemployed parents could no long fund their children’s private school tuition, student enrollment cratered from about 150 students to about 75 students on the Lutheran campus. The decline in enrollment was significant because the school, as so many small private schools do, relies heavily on student tuition to keep the doors open.
Those fiscally lean days, however, seem clearly behind the campus, which is led by Executive Director Don Crites, who assumed the positon about five months ago after joining the campus two years earlier as its development director.
Crites was an interesting choice.
Previously, he was a turnaround specialist, helping private equity firms fix broken companies they had bought only to resell later at a substantial profit. He wasn’t the high-finance guy (think 2012 Republican presidential George Romney of Bain Capital), he was actually the guy on the ground fixing things.
“I always ended up in distressed plants,” Crites said in his Spartan office on the Lutheran campus. “The plants might not have been closing; they just couldn’t seem to get it together.”
These weren’t mom-and-pop operations he was trying to tweak, but major divisions that made products like paint, foam and bubble wrap. Crites’ job was to work out the kinks and the inefficiencies in the manufacturing process.
“You go in there and assess where the failing points are and you put together a plan so you can move forward again,” Crites said. “There’s a lot to it, but it’s a very simple process. “It all keys on people and getting the team to pull the rope in the same direction.”
Altogether, Crites has worked on seven turnarounds; Lutheran will be his eighth. While there isn’t much slack in the rope he’s been given – the budget is still very lean – he is very familiar with the end product.
He grew up in the Lutheran educational system in his native Ohio and remains a huge proponent of a Christian, values-based education.
During recruitment fairs or family visits to his campus, he shares his Christ-centered wishes for them.
“I tell them that if they end up not picking Lutheran, please make it Damien, St. Lucy’s, Western Christian, or another similar school.”
Whether Crites is appealing to students and their parents or Lutheran’s board members, he is pinning his latest turnaround hopes on what he calls his four pillars: Recruitment and retention, stakeholder engagement, financial accountability and facilities.
Crites said he’s seeing decisive progress on all four pillars, but the first — recruitment and retention — appears to be the real key to upholding the other three.
“Our goal is to be the premier secondary education source in the private school sector,” Crites said.
Toward that goal, Crites points to Lutheran’s calculus, computer coding, ROTC, forensics, studio arts, robust sports programs and other classes and electives that will put students on a great path toward a top-tier college or university.
For many years, Lutheran has been recognized for its ROTC program overseen by Master Chief Eduardo David but run by a clear student chain of command. The program instills leadership, time management and citizenship skills, which includes community involvement.
“Students don’t have to make a commitment to the military,” Crites explained, “but boy does that service look good on a college application.”
In every grade, 9-12, students also take a class in Christian theology taught by Pastor Tom King. “Each year you’re on campus, you will take a theology class,” Crites said, adding that Christian teachings “permeate all classes in some form or fashion.”
Yet Lutheran boasts students from all faiths. “We’re Lutheran in heritage, but we accept all denominations. We have students who are Christian, Muslim, Buddhists,” Crites said, adding that his campus is eagerly awaiting a new student from Uganda who is expected to enroll in the fall.
SMALL CLASS SIZES
Regardless of what courses Lutheran students are taking, most classes are conducted with lots of individualized instruction, with class sizes often half those at public schools.
“Parents are gravitating to this environment because of the small-class sizes, the individual attention their children receive, and the good, rigorous academic program we offer,” Crites said. “They really want their kids well prepared for the university.”
As positive word-of-mouth spreads from students, families and other engaged stakeholders, Crites sees enrollment steadily ticking upward, which will strengthen Lutheran financially and further energize its marketing outreach.
“Word of mouth, however, is still the best thing,” Crites admitted. “We want to be talked about at the family cookouts.”
For now, Lutheran, which is owned by a group of 19 Lutheran churches, pulls many students from neighboring communities whose private school instruction may end after the eighth grade. Surprisingly, although Lutheran is based in La Verne, it doesn’t actively recruit students from Ramona or Lone Hill Middle Schools in the Bonita School District. Typically, public schools don’t lay out the welcome mat for private schools to come on their campus to openly recruit students because any run-off of public school students to a private school like Lutheran would reduce the public schools’ state funding.
Thus, notwithstanding its new website and some other minor marketing initiatives (a fall recruitment fair) Lutheran faces a marketing challenge to boost enrollment. Staying La Verne’s best kept secret doesn’t make for a great marketing campaign.
Despite the uphill enrollment battle, Lutheran does have a committed Crites and a dedicated teaching staff.
“Our teachers could make more money in the public sector, for sure,” Crites said, “however, they’re here because they care about the kids. I guarantee you on any given day, if you drive by Room 10 at 4:30 p.m., you’ll see a teacher and students grinding it out on the white board.”
For Crites, he’s more invested in his newest turnaround project than all his past jobs combined. He’s laser-focused on his newest mission and dreaming big, his vision further fueled by a stack of architectural renderings in his office that depict a new Lutheran High School, a 10-acre modern showcase of education and religious-based instruction.
“The designers went a little wild,” Crites blushes.
But make no mistake, Crites is a process-driven, eternal optimist who firmly believes that, in about two years, construction of the new Lutheran — and a capital campaign to finance it — will be solidly underway.
Crites has envisioned this kind of progress before and seen it through to its conclusion. There’s no reason to doubt that he and his four solid pillars won’t do it again.