Parish schools to retain sixth grades - Catholic Courier
Catholic elementary schools in Monroe County, including St. Joseph School in Penfield (above), will keep their sixth-grade classes for the foreseeable future. Catholic elementary schools in Monroe County, including St. Joseph School in Penfield (above), will keep their sixth-grade classes for the foreseeable future.

Parish schools to retain sixth grades

The Catholic elementary schools in Monroe County will keep their sixth-grade classes for the foreseeable future, according to an Oct. 25 letter sent home to parents of students in affected schools.

Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s decision to keep the sixth grades at their respective parish-operated schools overturns a 2010 plan to move the schools’ sixth grades to Siena Catholic Academy in Brighton at the start of the 2012-13 school year.

"I think we feel that our prayers have been answered. We’ve always wanted to keep our sixth-graders with us. We’ve always felt that we just have a great configuration that worked well for the children," said Martin Swenson, principal at Seton Catholic School in Brighton.

In late 2010 the Diocesan School Board recommended moving the sixth grades to Siena in order to align the structures of the parish schools with those of their neighboring public-school districts. Sometimes students leave their Catholic elementary schools after fifth grade in order to begin middle school in the public districts at the same time as their classmates there, diocesan superintendent Anne Willkens Leach explained in early 2011. Siena already housed seventh and eighth grades, and by adding sixth grades to the school’s offerings, diocesan officials also hoped to stabilize the Monroe County Catholic school system and encourage families to continue their students’ Catholic education through middle school and beyond. The board’s recommendation also was based on projections about the available space at the parish schools, she said.

Since the time of that decision, however, many parents, pastoral leaders and school officials have made "strong and compelling arguments" against the plan, Willkens Leach explained in her Oct. 25 letter to parents. Moving the sixth grades from their elementary schools could adversely affect those schools’ enrollment and marketing efforts, as well as the schools’ incomes. The move also could create transportation problems for some families, especially those in Monroe County’s western suburbs.

Transportation definitely was a concern for parents of some students at St. Pius Tenth School, agreed Stephen Oberst, principal at the Chili school. St. Pius Tenth draws a number of students from areas in such northwestern parts of Monroe County as Clarkson, Brockport and Hamlin, and those students would have been outside the busing range for Siena as well as some of the Catholic high schools, Oberst said.

Other factors also led the Diocesan School Board to reconsider its 2010 recommendation, Willkens Leach noted.

"In addition, the growing presence of universal pre-K programs in the public schools has meant our space projections have changed, opening the door to keeping sixth grades where they are now," she explained.

The Diocesan School Board reversed its earlier decision in light of these concerns and recommended to Bishop Clark that the sixth grades remain at the parish schools. He accepted the board’s recommendation.

With Bishop Clark’s blessing, Our Lady of Mercy Middle and High School in Brighton, McQuaid Jesuit in Rochester and Bishop Kearney High School in Irondequoit will add sixth grades to their existing offerings in September 2012. Aquinas Institute partnered with Nazareth Hall and Nazareth Academy in 2010, and that school system serves students in preschool through sixth grade at Nazareth Elementary School and students in seventh through 12th grades at Aquinas Institute.

Siena Catholic Academy will remain a junior high for the seventh and eighth grades only, Willkens Leach said.

Most parents of St. Pius Tenth students reacted positively to the news that their school would retain its sixth grade, Oberst said. Parents now have more choices than ever before, he said, noting they can opt to stick with the kindergarten through sixth-grade model or send their children to the private Catholic junior and high schools if they prefer a sixth through 12th-grade model.

"Most people are very pleased that they have more choices," Oberst said. "Now they won’t be forced to make a decision they might not have wanted to have to make."

Many parents of Seton students likewise are glad that their sixth-grade students will be able to remain there for one more year, Swenson said.

"I think they see it as sort of a natural fit for the children and they just didn’t want to see them have to move right after fifth grade," he said.

Many Seton students go on to Siena, so a number of parents had considered sending their sixth-graders to Siena. Others had looked into the options offered by the Catholic high schools, but most had not yet made final enrollment decisions, Swenson said.

"I think a lot of them hoped that the decision might be changed and were just a little bit hesitant about making the final decision," he said.

Seton is now operated under the auspices of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Brighton and St. Anne Parish in Rochester. When the parish’s pastoral administrator, Sister Joan Sobala, SSJ, learned the school would retain its sixth grade, she made a remark that summed up the Seton community’s feelings, Swenson added.

"Sister Joan Sobala said, ‘Thank the Lord, our prayers are answered!’ We’re just happy and feel blessed," he said.

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