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Over the past ten years, Catholic Schools around the country have seen a decrease in enrollment. Over half a million students moved to new schools. Just over 2,000 Catholic schools were reported closed or consolidated.
But there’s one Catholic institution that has no intention of joining that statistic: Mercy Academy, a small girls school in Louisville, Kentucky.
As it tries to attract new students, the school is also drawing attention for its new advertising campaign, which tells girls: “You’re not a princess” and “Don’t wait for your prince.”
Mercy Academy principal Amy Elstone and president Mike Johnson speak to Here & Now’s Robin Young.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Over the past decade, Catholic schools have seen a decrease in enrollment. Just over 2,000 have reported closing or being consolidated. But there's one Catholic school that has no intention of joining that statistic. Mercy Academy, a small girls' school in Kentucky, is attracting attention and hoping to attract new students with its new ad campaign.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Once upon a time, in a land called Louisville, there was one high school that believed it was time to stop telling girls they were all princesses.
YOUNG: Amy Elstone is principal of Mercy, as well as a graduate of the school. Mike Johnson is Mercy's president. We'll get to him in a minute. Amy, start with you. Why this campaign?
AMY ELSTONE: We started to really look at our curriculum about five years ago, and we realized that what we were doing was not preparing our girls for real-world learning. So we completely threw out everything that we were doing. I had teachers who had been teaching the same curriculum, you know, some of them for over 20 years, and we started from scratch. And we needed a campaign that was going to highlight that.
YOUNG: So you say you're reacting to wanting to give your young women more real-life experience. Are you also reacting to young women? Because we know that the new heroes for girls are heroic: Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games." And we're seeing other people react to this. Disney had to pull a glammed-up version of a princess in the film "Brave" because fans were very upset she'd had a makeover. She lost her bow and arrow and her fizzy hair, and she got all skinny.
Are you reacting to how you see young girls changing, as well?
ELSTONE: If you just kind of look at this campaign by just looking at the title, You're Not a Princess, then you really lose what we're trying to say here. A lot of the reaction has been, but, you know, there are great princesses, and I want my daughter to be like a princess. But for what we're telling young women is you're not a princess, you're much more than that.
YOUNG: In other words you're not just a princess.
YOUNG: Mike, bring you in here for a second. How much of this from your perspective as president of the school is practical, that yes, I just heard that there are parents and girls who still want to be viewed as a princess, but these are changing time, and you've got to keep - you've got to get people in the seats.
MIKE JOHNSON: It is changing times, and they're - they want to be doers. They want to be people who make a difference in the world. And the best way that we can prepare them is give them all the academic skills they need but also an opportunity to try those out, applying them to real-world problems.
YOUNG: What do you say to those who say but wait a second, so you're pushing these girls to be all that they can be on the one hand, but Catholicism is patriarchal. You can tell girls all you want that they can be more than a princess, but they can't be a priest.
JOHNSON: Well, obviously we are proudly Catholic, and one of our models is the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley. And she found ways to do what was in her heart to help the poor, the sick and the uneducated. So we feel that you can do all sorts of things that your heart calls you to do within that context.
YOUNG: Well Amy, there are others who have commented on this notion, though, that yours is actually a feminist campaign, and yet Catholicism isn't seen at first blush as being associated with feminism. But there are women speaking out in defense of your campaign. One is quoted by the Huffington Post as saying wait a second, Jesus was one of the biggest defenders of women.
ELSTONE: Absolutely. If you asked me is this a feminist approach, I would say yes, and I do. And I think that within the Catholic tradition and within the Catholic faith, you know, there are areas obviously where, you know, women are not placed just yet, but I think with what Jesus did and his story, I mean, I think that's really what our girls need to focus on. And then with what the sisters do in the world, and - I just think they're amazing role models for girls.
YOUNG: Amy, Mike, thanks for talking to us about it.
ELSTONE: Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: And again, Amy Elstone, Principal Mike Johnson, president of Mercy Academy in Louisville, Kentucky. You can see their ad campaign at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.