Schools plan draws varied reactions - Catholic Courier

Schools plan draws varied reactions

The Diocese of Rochester’s plan to consolidate seven Monroe County schools and redistribute parish tuition subsidies received a mixed reaction last week.

School officials said some parents and students understood the reasoning behind the plan and were optimistic about the creation of three merged schools, whereas others reacted with sorrow and anger at the announced closings of four school buildings.

The diocese announced Nov. 12 that it would in June close four buildings currently operating at less than 50-percent capacity: St. John the Evangelist in Greece will merge with St. Charles Borromeo at the St. Charles site; St. John the Evangelist (Humboldt Street) will merge with St. Ambrose at the St. Ambrose site; Sacred Heart will merge with Holy Rosary at Holy Rosary; and St. Helen’s in Gates will close. The students at St. Helen’s were invited to enroll in any Catholic school convenient to them.
In explaining the decision, the diocese noted that enrollment had decreased systemwide by 25 percent over the past five years in the Monroe County Catholic School system, and by nearly 50 percent, collectively, at the affected schools.

The merged schools will be renamed, according to Michael Tedesco, diocesan spokesman, who added that employees at the seven affected schools will receive hiring priority for positions at the merged schools.
Mary Beth Sullivan, principal at St. Helen’s, said students and parents were upset about the news that their school will close and added that she planned to conduct a question-and-answer session to address the concerns of parents.

One such parent is Nancy Smyth, who has one child in fifth grade and another in preschool at St. Helen’s. She said she was saddened by the decision to close the school.

“I knew enrollment was down, and it concerned me, but I never thought it would it would happen that way,” she said of the closing. She said she wondered why the diocese had not enlisted school parents in efforts to save the school.

“If we had been given that opportunity, I think there might have been a different outcome, and if we didn’t have that outcome, at least we would have had the opportunity,” she said.

Tedesco noted that the diocese had conducted an extensive marketing campaign in January of this year to promote St. Helen’s and the schools scheduled to be merged. That campaign included direct-mail solicitations of households near the schools, he said, but did not elicit the kind of enrollment increases needed to justify keeping the schools open.

“The majority of our marketing dollars went to support these schools,” he said.

He added that the diocese had to weigh the desire to keep the school buildings open against the needs of the Monroe County Catholic School system as a whole.

“The fact is that the enrollment levels and finances of these schools were negatively impacting the system,” he said.

Eileen Preston, principal of St. John’s in Greece, noted that only 85 children attend her school, so the closing of its building wasn’t completely unexpected. Nevertheless, members of the school community had a variety of reactions to the closing, she said.

“Some are upset; others are looking forward to the new school,” she said.
She noted that tuition costs are driving many parents away from Catholic schools.

“I think in Rochester people are nervous about the economy,” she added.
Ruth Hill is a teacher’s aide at St. John’s in Greece and has two grandchildren at the school. While she said she understands the reasons for the closing, she was nonetheless heartbroken by the announcement.
She noted that the school recently upgraded its library and was planning to install a new computer network.

“It’s a model school as far as I’m concerned,” Hill said. “It’s a wonderful place for kids to be educated.”

Meanwhile, at St. Charles Borromeo, Mary Barrese-Frame said the news that her building would house a new school brought forth mixed emotions.
“Of course we’re happy that our building will stay, but it’s disconcerting that the staff will not,” she said. She added that her school plans to invite the students and parents of St. John’s “as often as we can” to what will be their new school site.

In addition to the school consolidations, the diocese also announced Nov. 12 that it would redistribute approximately $7 million in tuition subsidies.

Under the new plan, families that are able to do so will bear a greater share of the actual costs of educating their children, while those of lesser means will receive additional financial assistance.

Aid reallocation will be phased in over the next three academic years. Families will also be able to apply for a multiple-child tuition discount, and the diocese will implement a family tuition cap. Officials cannot project how much assistance families might receive until they know how many families will apply for aid, what range of assistance those families will need or what enrollment will be for 2005-06.

Parishioner families with one child enrolled currently pay tuition of $2,950, or about 66 percent of actual per-pupil education costs. Under the new plan, parishioner families that do not qualify or apply for financial assistance would experience a maximum increase of $500 in their tuition costs for one child in the system in 2005-06.

Barrese-Frame said she thought the new tuition plan would improve matters for parents.

“I think it will make more aid available for people who need it,” she said.
Hill, however, questioned the wisdom of coupling the announcement of the school-consolidation plan with the tuition-subsidy changes.

“I think they should have delayed a year,” she said of the subsidy changes. “The transition of the (school) changes is shock enough for parents.”

Yet Tedesco said the need to change the allocation of tuition subsidies is urgent. Catholic schools are losing students because of rising tuition costs, he said, and the new subsidy approach will enable families “on the fringe” to stay within the Catholic system.

“In our minds, the only way we’re going to stabilize enrollment … is by lowering the cost for those who don’t have the resources,” he said.

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