Families go the extra mile
Laurie Alverio drives her son, Noah, 16 miles to Webster's St. Rita School from their Williamson home on her way to work.
Four children in the Dodd family take a bus just under 15 miles to St. Rita from Greece.
Ian and Madeline Tulloch, along with several other Newark-area students, go a similar distance by bus to Catholic schools in Geneva.
Meanwhile, Amie Nicola of Mount Morris regularly drives her daughters, Angelina and Amelia, some 34 miles to St. Ann School in Hornell. This arrangement works for now since mom's dental practice is in Hornell. But in the next school year, Angelina will be in seventh grade and the nearest Catholic-school option for her would be Corning's All Saints Academy, another 47 miles to the east.
With more than half of diocesan Catholic schools having closed in the last decade, traveling these kinds of distances for Catholic education is becoming a more frequent reality. Adding to the challenge is a long-standing state law requiring public-school districts to bus children to private schools only within a 15-mile limit. Yet many parents, believing that the benefits of Catholic education far outweigh the transportation hassles, continue to find ways to get their children to school.
"It's a hardship, but a labor of love. They want what's best for their kids," said Lisa Dirlam, principal of St. Ann School.
Logging long distances for Catholic education is nothing new, according to Anne Willkens Leach, diocesan superintendent of schools. She pointed out that high-schoolers have traditionally traveled many miles to attend Geneva DeSales and Elmira Notre Dame, the only Catholic high schools in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions, respectively.
This trend is growing at the elementary level as well, since many schools have closed in recent years due to rising costs and declining enrollment. Twelve of the 21 Catholic elementary schools in the diocese are spread across 11 counties other than the county of Monroe. There are two schools each in Cayuga, Chemung, Ontario and Steuben counties; one each in Livingston, Tioga, Tompkins and Yates; and none in Seneca, Schuyler and Wayne.
Fewer school closings have taken place in outlying areas than in Monroe County, yet the geographic impact of such closings has been greater. When Holy Family School in Dansville ceased operation in 2008, for instance, the next closest Catholic school was 18 miles away at St. Ann in Hornell. When St. Michael in Newark closed in 2011, the nearest alternative was St. Francis-St. Stephen in Geneva, 17 miles away.
The Nicola children in Mount Morris formerly attended Holy Family and, according to Dirlam -- the last principal of that school -- they’re among the few Holy Family students who have remained in Catholic schools since Holy Family closed.
Similarly, a regional void has been created by the absence of St. Michael School in Newark. Suzanne Tulloch, whose family lives just outside Newark, said the closing affected many villagers as well as families from such communities as Clyde, Savannah, Lyons, Palmyra, Clifton Springs and Phelps.
When Alverio switched her son to the third grade at St. Rita this past fall after three years at St. Michael, she actually shaved three miles off the 19-mile distance between Williamson and Newark. However, Alverio said she was unable to secure busing to St. Rita even though Noah had been bused beyond the 15-mile limit to St. Michael. She said Williamson Central School District officials told her not enough private-school children were traveling to Webster to make it fiscally sound for them to bend the state law by providing a bus.
"It's frustrating. I pay my (public) school taxes," Alverio said.
Noting that the great majority of St. Ann School's 95 students are from Hornell, Dirlam said she received numerous inquiries last year from families living more than 15 miles away. But by and large those students didn't come, and Dirlam senses the lack of available busing as the primary reason.
In Monroe County, Willkens Leach said the 15-mile limit generally only affects the lone diocesan-operated junior high school, Siena Catholic Academy in Brighton, which draws from a wide area. Although 12 of the county’s 24 Catholic elementary schools closed in 2008, Willkens Leach said that "you pretty much can find a school of your liking" within a reasonable distance. Still, the superintendent also acknowledged that even relocating students a comparatively short distance means considerable practical and emotional adjustments for affected families.
For instance, the Dodd children formerly traveled six miles across Greece to Mother of Sorrows School before switching to St. Rita about a year ago, following the news that Mother of Sorrows would close in June 2011. Living 14.8 miles from St. Rita, the Dodd children barely qualify to get a Greece Central School District bus. So fourth-grader Jack, third-grader Liberty, second-grader Trinity and kindergartner Joshua are picked up at 6:40 each school morning for the journey to Webster.
"An hour on the bus is a long ride," Heidi Dodds acknowledged, saying she drove her children to St. Rita their first four weeks until they could become accustomed to the extra distance.
Worth the sacrifice
But where there’s a will there’s a way, and so it is with the Tullochs and a number of other Newark-area families who collaborated to work out an arrangement with the Newark Central School District. They drop off their children at 7 a.m. and pick them up at 3 p.m. at a designated spot in the village so a public-school bus can transport them to and from Geneva's DeSales High School, where Ian Tulloch is a freshman; and St. Francis-St. Stephen Elementary School, where Madeline Tulloch is in fourth grade. Their mother said the families also collaborate on carpooling for after-school activities.
"We all stay in touch by e-mail on a regular basis, organizing rides. There's a tightness that has been created," Suzanne Tulloch said.
Alverio said she appreciates knowing there are two other families near her home who send their children to St. Rita, in case she's ever unable to transport her son.
"You've got to be able to shift, have a second plan," she said.
Willkens Leach noted that many other families in outlying areas bond together to arrange for bus pickup spots and/or carpooling to Catholic schools: "In the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes, they come up with all kinds of ways to help each other get there."
Yet even with these options available, Tulloch, Alverio and Dirlam lamented that far too many families simply find it too difficult to work out the logistics of sending their children long distances to Catholic schools.
"That's the unfortunate part. It's not possible for everybody," Alverio said, pointing out that even though she's now able to drop off Noah at St. Rita en route to her job in Rochester, she might be thrown into a quandary if she ever changes employment.
Tulloch said it's been frustrating for Newark families to send their kids to another town when the village had its own Catholic school up until last year.
"There's a certain element of bitterness to this," she remarked.
"I think it's fabulous that families are making the sacrifices they have to. On the flip side, it's sad for the ones who want to but can't," Dirlam added.
Nevertheless, those interviewed said transportation struggles are more than offset by the faith-based education their children receive once they walk through the doors of Catholic schools.
"It's extremely important that kids in this day and age have their beliefs and values. That gets them through life," Alverio said, adding that she also cherishes the family atmosphere at St. Rita School: "I couldn't be happier."
Even though the Dodds live closer to other Catholic schools than to St. Rita, they, also, feel strongly that St. Rita is the right fit for them.
"We wanted school to be an extension of what they get at home, and I firmly believe St. Rita's is an extension," Heidi Dodds said, adding that she feels an "overwhelming sense of community" there.
When Holy Family in Dansville closed, "Catholic education was so important to us for our children that we were willing to make whatever sacrifices were needed to continue," Tony Nicola said. That's why Angelina and Amelia are at St. Ann in Hornell. Among the benefits cited by their parents are a quality educational experience; freedom to express faith in school; forming a foundation for practicing lifelong faith; a desirable balance between learning and discipline; fewer secular influences; and lower student-to-teacher ratios.
For Suzanne Tulloch, the rewards showed up at holiday time when her children "were able to go to penance and there was no stigma attached to it." She acknowledged that she initially balked at the idea of sending her daughter to St. Francis-St. Stephen but is gratified that Madeline and many of her former St. Michael classmates are now there.
"Was it our first choice to have our daughter on a bus (to Geneva)? No. But we're unbelievably blessed," she remarked.