Hornell school fights to stay open - Catholic Courier
Leigha Smith reads at her desk in this Jan. 2009 file photo taken at St. Ann School in Hornell. Leigha Smith reads at her desk in this Jan. 2009 file photo taken at St. Ann School in Hornell.

Hornell school fights to stay open

A first-grader’s mother recently shared with Lisa Dirlam, principal of St. Ann School, her son’s poignant request during a local visit with Santa Claus.

"He said he wanted 15 more students to come to St. Ann," Dirlam reported.

To those outside the City of Hornell, that might seem an odd Christmas wish. But it’s right on target with the feelings of folks involved with St. Ann, who realize their school’s future will be determined shortly.

Enrollment and fundraising drives are under way as the Steuben County school attempts to ward off possible closure at the end of the current academic year due to low enrollment and high expenses. St. Ann, which serves prekindergarten through grade 6, is located on the campus of St. Ann Church and has a nearly 150-year history. But in a letter to Our Lady of the Valley parishioners dated Nov. 20, Father Peter Anglaaere, pastor, declared that the school has reached "a crossroads in our mission."

"In the past few years we have sadly witnessed a steady decline in our student enrollment," Father Anglaaere wrote. He added that the school must increase its enrollment from 85 to approximately 115 students — or secure $120,000 in additional donations — to remain open for 2010-11. Should current initiatives not prove successful by mid-January 2010, Father Anglaaere said that by early February he will recommend closure of St. Ann to Bishop Matthew H. Clark.

Dirlam, the first-year principal of St. Ann, said that approximately 55 of the 85 current students were registered for 2010-11 as of Dec. 21. However, despite two open houses since Father Anglaaere’s Nov. 20 announcement, Dirlam said no new families had registered. She expressed concern that not enough families were focused on early registration due to the holiday season, and that other families might be reluctant to commit due to St. Ann’s uncertain future.

On the other hand, Dirlam said that raising necessary donations might prove easier than meeting the enrollment quota. She said more than $41,000 has been donated to the school’s "Super Heroes" fund, which seeks 500 donors at $500 each, and that more than $5,500 has been raised from a special parish appeal.

Anyone wishing to donate to the school may send a check to the parish office at 27 Erie Ave., Hornell, NY 14843. Pledges earmarked for the fund drive will be returned if the school closes.

Father Anglaaere told the Catholic Courier that the parish and school communities have worked diligently for years on upping enrollment, but to no avail up to this point.

"This has not been a ‘yesterday’ thing," said Father Anglaaere, who has served as Our Lady of the Valley’s pastor since 2008. "We’d love to have the school, but we think we have to take a precaution so that we don’t put both the parish and the school down the drain."

Although Our Lady of the Valley traditionally has provided strong financial support for St. Ann School, the pastor explained that the decline in students has significantly sapped the parish’s financial vitality. He added that the parish’s finance council recommended closure of the school, yet the current window of time was put in place in hopes of reversing the enrollment and financial crises.

Father Anglaaere noted that St. Ann School began the current school year on a shaky note. It dropped its seventh and eighth grades, made staff cuts, and has not attracted additional students even though tuition rates have remained the same the past four years. He added that he feels badly for families who continue to loyally support St. Ann School but see its future in jeopardy.

"My heart goes out to them," he said, emphasizing that he has a strong affinity for Catholic education based on having been a Catholic-school principal and minor-seminary rector in his native Ghana.

Dirlam, meanwhile, was principal of Holy Family School in Dansville when it was closed two years ago and remarked, "I am not really ready to do it again." She said students have expressed concern and offered prayers for the school’s survival, but that overall "the mood of the building is cheery."

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