Holy Family School in Dansville has begun the 2007-08 school year in hope of establishing a new foothold following some difficult events over the summer.
Hope for a fresh start was evidenced by the cover of the Aug. 26 Holy Family Parish bulletin, which highlighted the school and introduced its new principal, Lisa Dirlam.
The bulletin promoted the school’s positive attributes and offered ongoing opportunities for enrollment in grades pre-kindergarten through 5. The bulletin also included an introductory letter from Dirlam, who was appointed after the resignation of David Rausch. She has taught for the past 16 years in the dioceses of Rochester and Buffalo.
"Holy Family School will continue its commitment to building a strong partnership with the Holy Family Catholic Community Parish," she wrote.
In a Sept. 13 interview with the Courier, Dirlam noted that she had met earlier that week with Sister Elaine Poitras, CSC, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools; Patty Jones, assistant superintendent; and Cindy Drexler, Holy Family’s business manager. She said the meeting focused on such key areas as enrollment, finances, marketing and development "as well as continuing the awesome academic program that we have."
Dirlam added that she’s excited about beginning her first principal’s position.
"So far, so good," she said.
The school opened this fall despite a decision by Holy Family Parish’s finance and parish pastoral councils that the school should close due to lower-than-expected enrollment.
In an Aug. 22 interview with the Catholic Courier, Holy Family’s pastor, Father Stephen Karani, said the school had failed to meet several enrollment and economic benchmarks set this past year by the parish councils. The key benchmark was to have at least 72 students for 2007-08 in grades kindergarten through 5, he said. As of the first day of school, K-5 enrollment was at 63.
Another benchmark called for Holy Family’s pre-kindergarten program to at least break even. But based on projected enrollment figures in late July, pre-K would only generate about half the needed revenue.
A critical economic benchmark stipulated that the parish not be forced to allocate more than 35 percent of its own budget in subsidies to keep the school afloat, Father Karani said. As a result of low enrollment, however, projections indicated a subsidy far beyond the 35-percent level would be required.
Based on the two councils’ review of this data, Father Karani formally recommended the school’s closing to Bishop Matthew H. Clark on Aug. 8.
Bishop Clark denied the request, however.
In an Aug. 10 letter responding to Father Karani’s request, the bishop stated in part: "While I commend you on the hard work that has resulted in your recommendation, I feel that it is far too late for me to honor this recommendation for this coming school year. At this late date in August, parents have expended monies for books and uniforms, teachers have counted on employment for this school year, students have had no time to process the emotions of moving from familiar and beloved surroundings to a new school and the various school districts are totally unprepared to receive them."
"I propose that we work together with the Catholic Schools office and your pastoral and finance councils in determining whether indeed there is no support for Catholic education in southern Livingston County," the bishop added. "If there is interest and support, then I recommend that a strategic plan be developed for slowly rebuilding the enrollment at Holy Family Catholic School. If there is no support, then I will accede to your wish that Holy Family School be closed next June."
The hiring of Dirlam, who plans to lead development of a five-year strategic plan for the school, marks the latest in a series of efforts to preserve Catholic education in southern Livingston and northern Steuben counties.
Also due to low enrollment, St. Joseph’s School in Wayland closed in 2004, and was consolidated with the former St. Mary’s School in Dansville to create Holy Family School.
In 2005 low enrollment and excessive costs also led Father Michael Schramel, Father Karani’s predecessor as pastor at Holy Family Parish, to recommend the school’s closure. At that time, however, the finance and pastoral councils opted to keep the school open.
As the new year begins, Father Karani said he’ll again attempt to garner the support necessary for the school’s survival.
"It’s difficult, but we’re going to try again to do what the bishop asks me to do — advertise and talk about Catholic education, highlight the Catholic values," he said.