Catholic Schools Await More Closing Bells

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For 135 years, Holy Cross School has taught at the Crossroads of the World, educating first the offspring of longshoremen and dockworkers, now the children of bus company, hotel and office workers in Times Square.

Some of its students travel in each morning with their working parents from as far-off as New Jersey, Westchester County and Pennsylvania. Wearing their white, maroon and gray uniforms, they line up outside a red brick schoolhouse on 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue just around the corner from the adult DVD stores and fast food-restaurants on Eighth Avenue.

But now, Holy Cross is one of 28 elementary schools being considered for closing this year by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The proposed shutdowns are the latest in a wave that has swept away Catholic elementary schools in the Northeast and Midwest in recent decades.

In the New York Archdiocese, which extends from Staten Island north almost to Albany, fewer than 75,000 students now attend 245 Catholic elementary and high schools, down from 212,000 students in 414 schools in the early 1960s.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, closed 26 elementary schools in 2011, but he has said that he hopes this latest round of closings will be the last of such broad scope.

The archdiocese is in the process of regionalizing elementary school management and financing, and is hoping that new revenue sources, including an archdiocesan tax levied on each parish to support all schools in its local region, will help reduce the persistent operational deficits that it says are forcing the closings.

Over the last few months, committees of clergy and lay people have examined the finances of individual schools and determined that some of those running substantial annual budget deficits would have to close, regardless of their academic performance, said Timothy McNiff, the archdiocesan superintendent of schools. Schools filled with students from poor or immigrant families, like Holy Cross, are being hit the hardest, because they often have the most limited financial resources.

"This is the most unfortunate thing about what we have to do," Dr. McNiff said. "We are closing schools that are not failing academically, that are not failing in terms of helping the child with their faith journey and that provide safe harbors for kids."

However, he said, "if we do not do this, it is a death by a thousand cuts -- the deficits will consume us."

In November, church officials notified 26 schools that they were at risk of being closed, but said they would allow schools to remain open if they could demonstrate that they could raise enough money to finance their own operations, rather than continuing to depend on subsidies from the archdiocese. Two schools from Staten Island were added to the list in January. For Holy Cross, that would mean raising pledges of $720,000, enough to cover its annual $240,000 operating deficit for three years.

Sister Mary Theresa Dixon, the principal of Holy Cross, said Monday that the school had received pledges of about $211,000 a year from alumni and other donors, which she hoped would be enough. The Rev. Peter Colapietro, the longtime parish pastor, said he was still reaching out to more donors. The final decisions are expected on Jan. 22.

The difficulty of the situation has not been lost on the approximately 200 students, who sat in orderly, brightly decorated classrooms on a recent Friday, working on three-digit subtraction, science fair proposals and history lessons.

"I don't want this school to close because the school made me who I am today," said Brandon Johnson, 10, a fifth-grader. "But even if it is closed, we still have the memory in our hearts."

Marc Rivera, 14, an eighth-grader from the Bronx, also said the school should be spared.

"I've been here since first grade," Marc said. "I stuck with this school because all the teachers are nice. There's no mean kids in this school."

Many of the at-risk schools across the archdiocese have formed emergency alumni committees, drawn up petitions and devised marketing plans in an effort to appeal to families with tighter finances and more options, including charter schools, than in the past.

"We're functioning in a more competitive environment," said Agnes McNamara, the principal of Good Shepherd School in Inwood, which raised enough money two years ago to stave off being closed and is not at risk this time.

She is working to raise enrollment by offering new courses and teaching methods; annual tuition at her school is $4,000. "People are sacrificing to send their children; they have to be given a quality product," she said.

Among the boroughs, the Bronx is the one that is being most significantly affected. The archdiocese closed six parish elementary schools in the borough in 2011, and eight more are now deemed at-risk, including Blessed Sacrament, which Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the United States Supreme Court attended, and the neighboring St. Anthony's School.

Mary Singer, the principal of St. Anthony's, said the school was trying to raise $1 million to close three years' worth of budget shortfalls, but was struggling to do so in a neighborhood where many parents can barely afford the $3,500 annual tuition. The school now has only 165 students.

"In terms of the mission of Catholic schools, going back, it was to help the immigrants and provide the religious background and also a good education," Ms. Singer said. "And it's needed here."

In Rockland County, St. Peter's School in Haverstraw, now celebrating its 150th anniversary, is scheduled to close despite its rising enrollment. It now has 328 students, the pastor of its parish, the Rev. Thomas Madden, said.

The school kept its tuition low to attract to retain students from working-class families, but that required the archdiocese to pitch in about $500,000 a year in operating costs, an amount Dr. McNiff said had become unsustainable.

Dr. McNiff believes that the key to the Catholic school system's survival is to consolidate the remaining students in fewer buildings, which should reduce the average cost to educate each child, below the current $5,800 to $5,900. But, inevitably, some children whose schools close will not transfer to another Catholic school; in 2011, the archdiocese said, 36 percent of the children whose schools were closed left its school system.

Some wealthier parishes will not be affected by the regionalization plan, which goes into full effect in September. If a parish can run its schools self-sufficiently, through tuition and other donations, it does not have to be included in one of the 10 new archdiocesan regional school districts. But even those parishes will pay a tax to help support the regional schools, on a sliding scale that will amount to between $8,000 and $100,000 a year, Mr. McNiff said.

The expectation is that regionalization will generate $20 million in additional revenue for Catholic elementary schools, helping to shore up those that remain, he said. But there is also concern and sadness that finances must determine the fate of schools that have sought to admit students despite the bottom line.

"We have to balance the closings with our service to the poor," said Father Colapietro of Holy Cross parish in Manhattan. "It's a real balancing act."

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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