Diocese announces schools changes
As part of ongoing efforts to enhance the stability of Monroe County Catholic schools, the Diocese of Rochester announced Dec. 1 that it will reopen a school it closed in 2008 and consolidate two other schools at that building; move all sixth-grade classes to a diocesan middle school in Brighton; and revert all of its elementary schools to parish operation by 2012.
According to Catholic Schools Superintendent Anne Willkens Leach, Holy Cross School in Charlotte will reopen in the fall of 2011, and Greece's Mother of Sorrows School and Rochester's Cathedral School at Holy Rosary will consolidate there.
Willkens Leach said the consolidation of the latter two schools is being driven by two factors: the planned relocation of Cathedral School at Holy Rosary due to the sale of church property to Providence Housing Development Corp. for senior housing, and significant enrollment declines at both schools, which created concern among officials regarding their stability if they were to revert to parish operation.
"Enrollment drives everything we do," Willkens Leach said, noting that current prekindergarten to eighth-grade enrollment in Monroe County diocesan and parish-operated schools is 3,188, as compared to 3,500 last year, marking a 9 percent decline. "If we had gained a lot of kids each year -- like a couple percentage points -- we would be in a very different position," she said.
Although several possible locations were considered for a school consolidation, Willkens Leach said the Holy Cross campus offered such amenities as large classrooms, a gymnasium and a hot lunch program. Kathleen Dougherty, currently the principal of Cathedral School at Holy Rosary, will be principal of Holy Cross School when it reopens.
"As a parish school, (Holy Cross) is self-sufficient, not only financially, but it is in move-in condition," Willkens Leach said. "It is pristine."
Return to parish control
The announcement of the school consolidation and reopening was coupled with further news about changes to the organization of Monroe County diocesan schools. Based on the success of reverting St. Joseph and St. Lawrence schools to parish operation this past fall, Willkens Leach said the diocese will in 2011 return the following schools to parish operation: St. Louis School, Pittsford; St. John Neumann School, Irondequoit; St. Pius Tenth School, Chili; St. Rita School, Webster; and Seton Catholic School, Brighton.
Irondequoit's Christ the King School will not revert to parish operation until 2012 because its parish, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, was recently formed and parishioners are still in transition, she noted.
The reversion of schools to parish operation also will change how the schools are funded, Willkens Leach said. Every parish with a school was asked to submit a plan outlining how the parish would be able to operate a financially independent school. Some of the plans were revised several times, but the diocese is satisfied that they are all now workable, she said.
"Schools will be doing their own registration, they will set their own tuition and they will keep an eye on finances," Willkens Leach said. "They will make sure they have a balanced budget, and they will make sure they are financially healthy enough to have a school and a parish. It was very clear in parish schools in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes that the schools that had a pastor that was linked to the school were the strongest."
She said pastors at Monroe County parishes with schools have been actively involved in the process of reverting to parish operation.
"I think they want their schools to be a strong part of their parish, and they want to make sure financially that everything is going to be viable," Willkens Leach said. "We’ll make sure that that happens."
The diocesan Catholic schools office will continue to oversee textbook selection and curriculum, communication with the New York state education department, academic assessments, professional development and personnel, and marketing of Catholic schools. Each school would remain under the authority of Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
Tuition rates will soon be announced by each school; discount will be given for families whose children attend parish-operated schools and/or Siena Catholic Academy, a diocesan regional middle school located on the campus of St. Thomas More Parish in Brighton.
Siena, which offers seventh and eighth grades, also will be the subject of changes in 2012 when the sixth-grade classes from all of the parish-operated elementary schools in Monroe County will be moved there. Bishop Clark also has given approval for each of the local privately operated Catholic high schools to add sixth grades beginning in the 2012-13 school year, if they wish.
"That took a lot of thought, careful consideration and prayer," Willkens Leach said. "It’s our goal to keep all of our children in Catholic education from kindergarten through 12th grade, and most of the public schools have a middle school. We do see a number of our students leave to go to (public) middle school."
Sixth-grade teachers in Catholic schools may be able to apply for positions created by the addition of sixth grades at Siena and the Catholic high schools in the county. Additionally, the state’s elementary certification encompasses kindergarten to sixth grade, so sixth-grade teachers would be able to teach other grades if they preferred, Willkens Leach said.
"We will do everything we can to keep them employed," she said.
These changes in the operation of Catholic schools have been several years in the making. Returning schools to parish operation was recommended in 2007 by a task force appointed by Bishop Clark. Monroe County diocesan schools had been run by parishes until the 1988 creation of a diocesan quadrant system that centralized services and pooled resources. The quadrant system evolved into the consolidated Monroe County Catholic Schools System in 1994. Catholic schools outside of Monroe County have remained parish-operated.
A recent survey of Catholic schools parents revealed that parents overwhelming preferred on-site control of Catholic schools, diocesan officials noted.
"Our survey showed mostly that parents are concerned about academic excellence," Willkens Leach said. "Our Catholic schools are alive and well. All of our teachers are certified. We follow state and national standards, and our students take state and national assessments. On top of all of this, religion and faith-based education is woven into all that we do."
For several years parishioners at Holy Cross have continued to feel called to provide a ministry of Catholic education, said Father Tom Wheeland, pastor. The parish opened a preschool program in the Holy Cross School building after its closure, but parishioners prayed for more.
"We are committed, not just to opening the school, but having the school here in the future," Father Wheeland said.
The pastor said Holy Cross will reach out to students who will be displaced by the consolidation of Mother of Sorrows and Cathedral School at Holy Rosary.
"We are very aware of what they are going through at this time of change," he said. "We’ve been through these difficulties, and therefore we want to reach out to them."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Those interested in learning more about Holy Cross School may wish to attend an open house from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, at the school, 4492 Lake Ave., Charlotte.