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It's a few minutes past 9 a.m. and inside the Sullivan Center at Central Catholic High School, it's show time.
To Smash Mouth's version of "I'm a Believer," a video of Central students in class, on the athletic field, and everywhere in between plays out on an extra-large screen. After a friendly welcome from the Rev. Dennis Hartigan, the school's president, eighth-graders from across the area are treated to high-energy performances by the school's gospel choir and glee club. And that's just for starters.
Toledo's six Catholic high schools are strutting their stuff this week during the annual four-day ritual known as eighth-grade visitation. They are competing for the attention of more than 800 eighth-graders from 27 parochial schools to fill their freshman ranks next fall.
"It's the single biggest event to showcase our school," Kim Sofo, principal of the all-girls St. Ursula Academy, said.
With tuition ranging from $7,400 a year to more than $10,000 and the number of incoming students dwindling each year, it is competitive.
Father Hartigan said as recently as two years ago, 1,000 eighth-graders from Toledo visited metro Catholic schools. It's down to 822 this year and predicted to dip as low as 500 by 2015.
"Even if you maintain your market share, 20 percent or 30 percent of 1,000 is not what it is at 500, so that's what has helped us to realize we have to reach beyond," he said. "You can only shake the tree so much. You have to start looking elsewhere for the students."
Central Catholic is the largest of the six high schools with 1,008 students this year.
The smallest -- the co-ed, 252-student Cardinal Stritch High School -- rolls out the red carpet -- literally -- when the eighth graders visit.
"When the kids pull up to the school, our drum team is playing, they walk down a red carpet and paparazzi with microphones are asking them questions like, 'How does it feel to be at Cardinal Stritch High School?' 'What sports are you interested in?' " Kelly Latz, director of enrollment and marketing for the eastside school, said.
Officials at each of the schools say they want the eighth graders to feel welcome and feel what it's like to walk their halls. They tour the building, have miniclass sessions, check out clubs and activities, and leave with a free school T-shirt, tote, or hat.
At St. John's Jesuit High School, the eighth-grade boys tour the 56-acre campus in golf carts driven by teachers or coaches. And while most of the schools offer cookies or light refreshments, St. John's starts with cookies, moves into hotdogs on the senior patio, and ends the session with french fries and soda pop for good measure.
"For a lot of kids, it's their first time in the building, the first time they've been here," Jason Huther, director of admissions at St. John's, said. "Our goal is to get them to come back for a visit."
St. John's, which began distributing iPads to all students this year, introduced that technology to eighth graders and showed off its new turf football field and athletic complex.
Each school tries to focus on what sets it apart.
Cardinal Stritch has a small, familylike atmosphere. Central Catholic is co-ed and boasts the most affordable tuition. Notre Dame Academy has an array of advanced placement courses. St. Ursula's students are focused on service and "the girls are all serving in some capacity," Ms. Sofo said.
At the all-boys St. Francis de Sales High School, Rick Michalak, director of admissions, said a majority of the eighth graders already may know which high school they will go to, but for others it's a huge decision.
"We don't dumb it down like some schools," he said. "We still have a [pep] rally, but the kids are going into our chapel to hear about service and our campus ministry. They're going down to the science wing and talking to the physics, biology, and chemistry teachers."
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Gail Christie, director of marketing at Notre Dame, said the girls get an action-packed look at the classes, clubs, and sports when they visit.
"Each of the schools has their own atmosphere," Ms. Christie said. "We encourage the girls to come back and shadow [a student for a day] because what they see on these visitation days is the spirit of the school in a different way than when they come and spend the entire day and meet more students and see what classes are like."
The Catholic Diocese of Toledo sets the dates and times for visitation, which precedes open houses at the schools in November and the high school placement test in early December. It's important, said Tony Mass, high school consultant for the diocese, to get all eighth graders in area Catholic elementaries into the different high schools.
"They're all heading in the same direction, which is to provide an outstanding Christ-based education," Mr. Mass said. "It's just interesting and inspiring to see how they're all going in the same direction but they take a little bit different path to get there. All the paths are awesome, and it gives our eighth-grade kids a chance to see where they think they'll fit."
Fresh from helping out with a science lab experiment with dry ice at Central Catholic yesterday, St. Joan of Arc eighth-grader Mario Markho said he was leaning toward St. John's. "I found it more appealing to me," he said.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.