Stating that Hornell’s St. Ann School has reached "a crossroads in our mission," the pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish has announced initiatives designed to ward off closure of the school after the current academic year.
In a letter to parishioners dated Nov. 20, Father Peter Anglaaere noted that registration for 2010-11 had begun immediately. A second open house has been scheduled at the school for 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 15, as part of what the pastor is characterizing as a last-ditch effort to save the school.
Father Anglaaere noted that students who are registered by Jan. 5, 2010, will receive a $500 discount on tuition for the 2010-11 school year. He added that anyone wishing to donate to the school may send a check to the parish office at 27 Erie Ave., Hornell, NY 14843.
St. Ann, which serves prekindergarten through grade 6 and has a nearly 150-year history, is located on the campus of St. Ann Church.
"In the past few years we have sadly witnessed a steady decline in our student enrollment," Father Anglaaere wrote to parishioners. 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 the next school year. Donations earmarked for the fund drive will be returned if the school closes, he said.
Should initiatives not prove successful by mid-January, Father Anglaaere said that he will recommend closure of St. Ann to Bishop Matthew H. Clark by early February.
"This has not been a ‘yesterday’ thing," Father Anglaaere told the Catholic Courier Dec. 1, saying that the parish and school communities have worked diligently for years to increase enrollment, but have not been successful.
"It is not our desire to close it; we’d like to possibly save it. 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," added Father Anglaaere, who has served as Our Lady of the Valley’s pastor since 2008.
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 affected the parish’s financial viability. He added that on Nov. 18 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 crisis.
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 due to low enrollment, and has not attracted additional students, even though tuition rates have remained the same the past four years.
Regarding the current push to keep the school open, Lisa Dirlam, first-year principal of St. Ann, observed that it might be easier to raise money than to substantially increase enrollment. She said families have until Jan. 8 to return their registration papers for 2010-11, but expressed concern that not enough families will be focused on that deadline since they’re currently immersed in the holiday season. On the other hand, Dirlam said donations and pledges have begun coming in. She added that people who are upset about the school’s potential closing should make their voices heard to local and diocesan administrators.
Dirlam said Catholic-school educators face stiff challenges in an era of economic struggles as well as shifting societal values that may place greater emphasis on a family vacation to Myrtle Beach than on Catholic-school tuition. Whereas a vacation can create lifetime memories, "so does a Catholic-school education," she stated. "I have a great respect for those families willing to make those kinds of sacrifices in today’s culture."
Dirlam extolled the virtues of Catholic education, pointing out that "we are able to talk about God and Jesus and we are allowed to pray with our kids, as many times in a day as we’d like" while also modeling the faith to students who aren’t Catholic. She pointed out that St. Ann is the only alternative to public schools in the Hornell area.
Father Anglaaere said he feels badly that families who continue to loyally support St. Ann School are seeing 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 said she remains hopeful that St. Ann School can be spared. She had been principal of Holy Family School in Dansville when it was closed two years ago and "I am not really ready to do it again," she remarked.
This story was updated on Dec. 8, 2009.