A year ago at this time, it was anybody’s guess where Katie Roy would attend school in 2008-09.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark had announced the previous month that due to sharply increasing costs and declining enrollment, Holy Trinity School in Webster — Katie’s school since prekindergarten — would be among 13 diocesan-operated elementary and junior high schools in Monroe County to close when the 2007-08 school year ended.
Katie’s parents, Tim and Lori, became involved in a parent group that petitioned to keep Holy Trinity open. But neither their plan, nor similar ones involving other schools slated for closure, won diocesan approval because officials said leaving them open would create undue competition for students among the remaining Catholic schools.
Katie’s dad acknowledged that this period was jarring for the family, and that their disillusionment left them weighing whether Katie might be better off in a public school.
However, Tim Roy said, "The whole point is, we believed in Catholic education. No matter how we felt (about Holy Trinity’s closing), moving away from Catholic education would not be validating our point."
Thus, Katie has resurfaced as a fifth-grader at Webster’s St. Rita School along with approximately 70 of her former Holy Trinity classmates. At this point, the move appears very much to have been the right option for her.
"I feel a lot more comfortable. I’m getting used to things," she said, noting that students and staff have gone out of their way to make her feel welcomed and that "every day, I definitely look forward to science class. I did at Holy Trinity, and I do now at St. Rita."
With the current school year more than halfway over, negative feelings appear to be dissipating as remaining Catholic schools have continually rolled out their welcome wagons, striving to include new students and parents in clubs, special events and daily school life.
Anne Willkens Leach, first-year diocesan superintendent of schools, said many parents have called her in recent months "and they’re surprised — so at peace with where they are. There is a sense of joy in the buildings. The blending, welcoming and inclusion have been far past my expectations."
This goal of oneness has been vital in moving forward, said Sister Katherine Ann Rappl, RSM, principal of St. Rita.
"We are all one school, just as we are all one church. It doesn’t matter the building, size of classes or color of uniforms. Our main concern is the children’s spiritual and academic education," Sister Rappl said.
The school closings stemmed from recommendations made by a 23-person task force appointed in September 2007 by Bishop Clark. In addition to Holy Trinity, the other closed Monroe County schools were Holy Cross, Charlotte; St. John the Evangelist, Spencerport; Catherine McAuley, Greece; St. John of Rochester, Fairport; Good Shepherd, Henrietta; St. Margaret Mary, Irondequoit; All Saints Junior High, Gates; and St. Andrew, St. Monica, Corpus Christi, St. Boniface and Holy Family, all in Rochester.
The 11 remaining Monroe County schools are St. Rita along with St. Lawrence and Our Mother of Sorrows, Greece; St. John Neumann and Cathedral School at Holy Rosary, Rochester; Christ the King, Irondequoit; St. Pius Tenth, Chili; St. Louis, Pittsford; St. Joseph, Penfield; and Seton Catholic and Siena Catholic Academy Junior High, Brighton.
According to Willkens Leach, current overall enrollment in the Monroe County schools is 3,732 in grades pre-K through 8, compared to 4,901 in 2007-08. She noted that the retention rate of displaced students was approximately 40 percent — in line with original projections.
"We are happy with the number of students who stayed with the diocese," Willkens Leach said.
Schools that saw sharp enrollment increases included St. Lawrence, which added more than 50 children and saw class sizes max out at nearly 30 students per classroom; St. John Neumann, which took in 150 new students from 20 different schools and child-care centers; St. Rita, which welcomed 90 new students; and St. Pius Tenth, which saw enrollment go up by 120 as it welcomed students from eight of the closed schools. On the other hand, schools such as St. Louis and Seton Catholic — which only added 23 and 13 students, respectively — were already near capacity and unable to accommodate a large influx.
Willkens Leach acknowledged that the blending process was a "big job for the principals and teachers" but that "every school has done something" to make new students feel more welcome.
Joseph Holleran, principal of St. Lawrence, said this year’s slogan is "One Bread, One Body, One Lord of All." He noted that early in 2008-09, transferring students poured soil from their former school campus into a garden outside St. Lawrence, and that each new child was recognized and presented with a small gift during a liturgy.
"The blending of school communities has not dampened nor diluted the unique qualities and spirit of our new families. Instead it has enhanced and made our whole school community better," Holleran said.
Marie Arcuri, principal of St. John Neumann, said her school held such family oriented events this past fall as a cabin party, Halloween party, movie night and dinner with Santa.
"Once everyone got to know each other, things became more and more familiar," she said.
Arcuri added that St. John Neumann significantly extended its music program with the intent that "incorporating more music into our curriculum was to create activities that build teamwork, cooperation and pride."
During the late fall, Martin Swenson, principal of Seton Catholic, had lunch with some of the newcomers just to check in and "make sure we’re doing anything we can to make them successful here."
"They all said they were welcomed warmly here by the other students — and I expected they would," Swenson said.
Kathleen Carroll, principal of St. Louis, and Steve Oberst, principal of St. Pius Tenth, said they’ve employed student ambassadors and "buddies" to help new students adjust. Carroll observed that students in lower grades appear to have adapted more quickly than older boys and girls.
"Probably the younger kids just fall into it. They find it rather exciting to be in a different building," she said.
At St. Rita, Sister Rappl said that parents, especially, "are still mourning the loss of the smaller school community they came from. Some are missing the ‘culture’ of their schools, the familiarity, the closeness."
Carroll agreed that these displaced families will never forget their former schools, but that "we tried to assure them we were here as a family and as part of the Monroe County Catholic school system."
A hopeful future
Will the landmark restructuring of Catholic schools bring about long-lasting stability? One positive indicator is in the area of tuition. With fewer buildings to maintain, diocesan officials were able to set 2008-09 tuition in Monroe County at $2,950 for one child of a parish-sponsored family — a 27-percent reduction from 2007-08. In addition, Willkens Leach said those tuition rates will stay the same for 2009-10.
And even though some Monroe County schools are full or nearly full, the superintendent stressed that she encourages families currently outside of the Catholic-school system to inquire within.
"We do have room, and will do our best to make room," Willkens Leach said.
Some concerns remain, however. For example, Timothy Leahy, principal of Siena Catholic Academy, pointed out that the closings eliminated several schools that had served as feeders for his junior-high program. In addition, junior highs have been added at Aquinas Institute and Bishop Kearney High School, creating increased competition for students.
"We’re all going after the Catholic sixth-graders. This year will be a pivotal year for us," Leahy said.
Lori Roy said some families she knows in Monroe County remain reluctant to enroll their kids in diocesan Catholic schools out of fear that further consolidation eventually may take place.
Meanwhile Oberst observed that these difficult economic times will severely test the affordability of Catholic education. Yet he said he nonetheless has high hopes.
"There are still challenges to come, but there’s always going to be challenges for our Catholic schools. I think we’ve really turned the corner and think we’re on firm ground," he said.
Changes in other parts of the diocese, though not as widespread, also have been significant. The three-school Holy Family Catholic School system in Elmira recently announced that it is consolidating into two schools for 2009-10; St. Mary in Dansville closed last year; and Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception dropped its seventh and eighth grades for 2008-09.
Catholic schools outside Monroe County are parish-run, and those within the county are operated by the diocesan schools office. Willkens Leach said all 14 non-Monroe County schools are doing self-reviews, but "the intent is to keep every school open. They’re doing the best they can."