MANKATO — About seven years ago, Adam Bemmels was hired as a second-grade teacher at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Le Sueur without aims of becoming a school principal one day.
Just two weeks later, however, when the St. Anne’s principal accepted a job elsewhere, Bemmels’ career path suddenly opened up in a new direction. The School Board and other school officials recognized strong leadership qualities, and as long as Bemmels agreed to begin working on acquisition of his master’s, he was offered the job.
“I think they saw it at the time that I believe in people; I believe in connecting people,” said Bemmels, who left St. Anne’s to become principal of Loyola Catholic School last June. “They needed a connection, and they needed a direction. … It seemed like it was meant to be.”
Enrollment was a huge issue that Bemmels faced at St. Anne’s, which bottomed out at 39 students at the start of his tenure. It’s a problem for Catholic schools nationally, with half as many students attending than did 50 years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“The archdiocese in Minneapolis was saying, ‘We’re going to close your doors.’ There was a downward spiral in enrollment, and there were rumors going around that we were closing,” he said. “There were a lot of challenges to overcome.”
In Bemmels’ six years there, enrollment increased to 119 students, thanks in part to beginning a preschool program and even freshening up a lot of the building with a new coat of paint.
“They had really good people there already at St. Anne’s, and I knew we could turn it around,” he said. “My biggest satisfaction when I look back on that is just how there are so many people who had a part of that. It was about allowing people to be their best and to do their very best work.”
Bemmels’ leadership during the enrollment turnaround at St. Anne’s was part of Bemmels’ appeal to Loyola.
“We’re always hoping to grow. That is our goal,” said Angie Winch, Loyola marketing and communications associate. “Everyone here, we’re all a part of that enrollment piece.”
Bemmels said when families come into Loyola — when they meet the teachers and see the close-knit community — they understand the quality education that students receive. Bemmels himself attended Catholic school while growing up in Fairfax, and all three of his children are receiving a Catholic education.
“I believe in Catholic education, and a part of Catholic education is that there is a spot for everybody here,” Bemmels said. “The people I target (for enrollment), they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be a part of something really special.”
Winch said this time of year is “enrollment season,” meaning open houses and kindergarten round-up, among other initiatives. TV and radio spots, billboards and direct mailers help get the word out, she said. The school also has upped its social media efforts, using tools such as Facebook Live at school events to show slices of life at Loyola.
Bemmels said in addition to showcasing the Loyola community, showing people the strong academic side of the school is important. The school now has several different academically driven pre-kindergarten and preschool options that not only get the kids ready for kindergarten but allow them to get familiar with the building and school staff.
Enrolling students at the pre-school level allows families to get an early look at the quality of Catholic education and entices them to keep their children enrolled in the higher grades, Bemmels said.
“One of my goals is to continue to help with enrollment — that’s a passion piece of mine,” he said. “We also want to continue to ensure that we are going through continuous improvement as a teaching staff and challenging our students to continue to improve.”
Increasing creative and learning opportunities for students is also important. A robotics program was added to Loyola this year, and one of the high school and middle school teams made it to the state tournament, Bemmels said.
“They had a very successful first year,” he said.
One of the unique things about Loyola, Bemmels said, is the high level of participation in diverse activities by the students. A student may be on the robotics team, and in basketball and also involved in theater, for example.
“They’re seeing this culture from an early age with students involved in so many different things,” Winch said.
Bemmels said families visiting Loyola seem to appreciate seeing so many opportunities for their kids.
“When we get people in the building, it’s about showing them what’s taking place here — having them see it in action,” he said. “That’s my approach is getting them in the building. … We just need the people of Mankato to continue to see that, as a school, we continue to deliver academic excellence and continue to be innovative and think critically and be inquiry-based.”
Right out of high school Bemmels attended Hamline University in St. Paul. But he ended up earning his first degree in radio broadcasting from Brown Institute in Mendota Heights. He went back to school to get his elementary education licensure from Crown College in St. Bonifacius.
His first teaching job was in Belle Plaine public school teaching sixth grade. He then taught fifth grade at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton, where he was also the head basketball coach.
Then, after starting work at St. Anne’s, Bemmels completed his master’s in education leadership and principal licensure from Concordia University in St. Paul.
Coming to Loyola, he said, was the right decision.
“I absolutely love this school, and I love the community of Mankato. Being up here on the hill is truly, truly special.”