Principal, pastor become proactive
St. Ann's School in Hornell has proudly provided Catholic education in western Steuben County for nearly 140 years. Yet school leaders know that yesterday's successes don't guarantee a thriving future, especially in this day and age.
With Mercy Sister Dolores Ann Stein, longtime principal, and Father Patrick Van Durme, pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish, leading the way, efforts are being stepped up to assess such crucial areas as fiscal projections, development and communication. According to Father Van Durme, the list of ideas is long and growing.
"There's nothing that's off the table," Father Van Durme said.
Sister Stein said enrollment at St. Ann's, a grades prekindergarten through 8 school, was 135 students in 2004-05 and will be approximately 140 in 2005-06. Although this signifies a drop from 180 when Sister Stein began as principal in 1984, the dip is not as drastic as at many diocesan schools, and enrollment has been stable for the past eight years.
Despite this stability, Father Van Durme noted that parents have been on edge after St. Joseph's School in Wayland closed a year ago and nine other schools in the diocese either merged or closed this past June. So he held a parents' meeting in April, as his first year as pastor neared completion. St. Ann's School is located at St. Ann's Church, a worship site in Our Lady of the Valley Parish.
"I thought it was a very good meeting. These are the kind of meetings you need to have; it stops the rumors out there. You don't need to think 'Father's going to close the schools because of finances.' No, Father is looking at the finances because he wants it to continue," said Sister Stein, who estimated that 25 to 30 parents attended the meeting.
"I love the school and I will do anything I can to let people know that," Father Van Durme said. This support is crucial outside Monroe County, where parish leaders are highly involved in decision-making about Catholic schools. In Monroe County, this is handled through a consolidated county-wide system.
Despite his backing of St. Ann's School, Father Van Durme challenged parents to be realistic about the future.
"Last year we gave over $150,000 of the parish's general income to the school. That's a big chunk of change. The questions I'm asking is, are we doing the best we can? Is the ministry the best we can give our kids?" he said.
He's also asking people to consider the potential rise in tuition, salaries and employee health-care costs, and building repairs in upcoming years.
"From my perspective I don't want to just sit back and leave things the way they are and watch St. Ann's slowly wither and die," he said.
Sister Stein said that a big hike in tuition isn't a sound option.
"There's a very high poverty level in this area. You can't put tuition up where the parents can't swing it," she said, adding that as it is, many families of current students have far greater financial need that there is aid available. Neither does Sister Stein want to increase the burden to Our Lady of the Valley parishioners, saying she'd like to see the current parish tuition-subsidization rate of 35 to 40 percent maintained.
Therefore, the school plans to launch a fundraising effort where, for the first time, increased alumni support is being sought through pledge cards that will go out with newsletters. Sister Stein said this endeavor is so crucial that she's delaying her retirement she had originally planned for the end of the 2005-06 school year.
"I'm willing to stay on an extra year to get this in place," she said, noting that she's looking to begin similar fundraising efforts directed toward parents of St. Ann's School graduates.
Father Van Durme said that Sister Stein has exhibited "so much passion, so much expertise" in her time as principal that he wants to make "a 100 percent effort to build on what she's been doing, and try to set the school on the strongest footing possible" before she retires.
Along with fundraising, several other recent initiatives have helped toward gaining that strong footing: beginning an all-day prekindergarten; arranging with Section 5 to allow seventh- and eight-graders from St. Ann's to play on public-school sports teams; and securing business sponsorships so that two pages per month are devoted to St. Ann's School in the local newspaper, the Hornell Evening Tribune.
Another key factor, Father Van Durme said, is promoting the school as an endeavor of the entire parish.
"I've seen some really bad situations where the school and the parish kind of pull away from each other -- 'I'm for the school,' 'I'm for the parish.' The thing is, the school is the parish," he emphasized. "Do the people of Our Lady of the Valley support a Catholic school? I'm beginning to believe that's a very strong 'yes.'"
Father Van Durme and Sister Stein said these efforts to preserve St. Ann's School are highly worthwhile because St. Ann's is the only Catholic school for many miles around, providing quality education in a family atmosphere with strong moral reinforcement.
"These children are well-engrossed in Catholic identity. They know their facts, their religion, their morals," Sister Stein said. "I've had kids come back and say 'Sister, I knew what to say yes to and what to say no to.' It's because of the values we live by."