Holy Family School in Dansville set to close at year's end - Catholic Courier

Holy Family School in Dansville set to close at year’s end

At least one of the two non-Monroe County schools Bishop Matthew H. Clark recently identified as "at risk" will close at the end of the 2007-08 school year. In light of the bishop’s comments, meanwhile, officials at the other school are re-examining their plan to remain open for at least another year.

Parish officials at Holy Family Parish in southern Livingston and northern Steuben counties decided Jan. 30 to recommend to Bishop Clark that Dansville’s Holy Family School close at the end of this academic year, according to Lisa Dirlam, principal. Father Stephen Karani, Holy Family’s pastor, received a letter from the bishop’s office in late February confirming Bishop Clark had accepted the parish’s recommendation. Dirlam said it is possible that the school building might house an independently run private school in the future.

The future of the other "at risk" school, St. Patrick School in Owego, will be decided shortly, according to Father William Moorby, pastor of Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County.

Bishop Clark acknowledged the "at risk" status of these two schools during the Jan. 18 press conference in which he announced the impending closings of 13 Monroe County schools. The bishop said he had asked officials at Holy Family and Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick to seriously consider the feasibility of the schools remaining open in 2008-09.

Whereas all diocesan Catholic schools in Monroe County have been operated under the auspices of the centralized Monroe County Catholic School System since its establishment in 1994, Catholic schools in the diocese’s other 11 counties have always operated under direct parish management due to their geographic dispersion.

On Jan. 30, Holy Family School officials and interim diocesan schools superintendent Sister Janice Morgan, SSJ, participated in a joint meeting of the pastoral and finance councils of Holy Family Parish, according to Bill Bacon, school-board president. During that meeting the parish leadership decided to recommend that the school be closed, Dirlam said.

Now that Bishop Clark has accepted that recommendation, Dirlam said the school board is exploring the possibility of opening an independently run private school in the building that currently houses Holy Family.

"Next week we’re going to be meeting with the parents at the school to try to get an idea of (whether) they would be interested in sending their children to a private school," Dirlam told the Catholic Courier March 5.

School officials will use the meeting to gauge parents’ interest in either a private Catholic school or a private Christian school, Dirlam said, and whether the community could provide enough funds to support such a school.

"Our biggest hurdle is going to be getting people to financially support us," she noted.

Once they’ve gathered information and put together some proposals, school-board members plan to approach the parish and ask for permission to use the current Holy Family School building as well as its furnishings and equipment, Dirlam said.

In Owego, Father Moorby wrote in a Feb. 17 bulletin notice that the bishop has accepted his recommendation that St. Patrick School remain open for 2008-09 only "if by March 15 at least 55 students are enrolled in grades K-5 for next year and at least 10 students are enrolled for kindergarten." If those quotas were not met, his bulletin notice stated, St. Patrick — the only Catholic school in Tioga County — would close.

Father Moorby told the Courier that St. Patrick’s enrollment is currently 63 students in kindergarten through grade 5, while the pre-kindergarten program has 34 children. He added that the parish community had hoped to see the school stay open at least through its 150th-anniversary year in 2008-09, but is reconsidering following Bishop Clark’s inquiry.

"This was not new news to us at St. Patrick. The parish finance council has been facing the issues that the (bishop’s 23-member Catholic Schools Task Force) addressed for years — financial deficit, rising operating costs, declining enrollment and operating the school under capacity. For a turnaround to take place a concerted effort of parents, alumni, parishioners and concerned members of our community is necessary," Father Moorby wrote in the Feb. 17 bulletin.

Although St. Patrick and Holy Family are the only schools outside Monroe County that the bishop publicly identified as "at risk," the recent turn of events in Monroe County seems to have had varied ripple effects on Catholic schools in other areas of the diocese.

For example, the future of the former St. John Bosco School in Seneca Falls remains uncertain and may be influenced by the Monroe County closings, Father James Fennessy, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls and St. Mary Parish in Waterloo, told the Courier. The school — formed by the 2004 merger of St. Patrick School in Seneca Falls and St. Mary School in Waterloo — was forced to close in August 2007 after an unfounded rumor that the school was closing apparently caused many parents to withdraw their children and enroll them elsewhere.

"The situation developed to the point where there weren’t enough students to financially or academically continue the school. There was no other course of action" than to close the school at least temporarily, Father Fennessy told the Courier in August.

At the time, Bishop Clark encouraged the diocesan Catholic Schools Office to work with the pastoral councils at St. Mary and St. Patrick to determine whether there was enough interest to eventually re-establish the school.

"I did meet with a group of people from St. Mary’s and St. Patrick’s," Father Fennessy told the Courier Jan. 30. "What they had said was, ‘If we do the same thing the same way, we’ll end up with the same results. Let’s wait for the Catholic Schools Task Force to come out with their recommendations.’"

The group has not yet resumed its discussion of the former school’s future since the Jan. 18 announcement about Monroe County schools, Father Fennessy said.

When James Tette, principal of St. Michael School in Penn Yan, first heard media reports Jan. 10 that the diocesan task force was about to recommend the closure of several diocesan schools, he took immediate action to quell rumors that St. Michael would be one of them. He said he didn’t know this for sure, but took a gamble and told people that his school would remain open.

"This is how St. John Bosco closed, with rumors," he told the Courier. "We went out with positive statements right away. I think everyone thought it was great when we weren’t on the list, but I think we had already taken away any fears people had."

Tette said he immediately knew he had his work cut out for him when he became principal at St. Michael in mid-July 2005 and realized that only 61 students had registered for the next school year. He began holding weekly meetings with a development committee to devise ways to strengthen the school. Since then, the school has established an endowment fund, and 2007-08 enrollment rose to 110 students in preschool through fifth grade, he said.

"Now we are celebrating 125 years of the school existing, and we want to build up our endowment fund to overcome our school’s challenges. We still definitely have to face challenges. We feel we’re addressing them in some positive ways, and our enrollment is going up," Tette said.

Meanwhile, news of the Monroe County closings has sparked a renewed energy and commitment to Catholic education among parents of students at St. Mary School in Canandaigua, Principal Ann Marie Deutsch told the Courier. The news doesn’t seem to have deterred any parents; in fact, several new families expressed interest in the school during a Catholic Schools Week open house Jan. 30.

"The effect that my parents feel is, ‘Oh my gosh, this can never happen here,’" Deutsch said.

"It maybe makes them take a second look and appreciate what is here," she added. "I think the parents are realizing you don’t appreciate something until it’s not there anymore. It almost makes them look at the choice, and that they have the choice is really so very precious."

Contains reporting by Mike Latona.

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