The Diocese of Rochester announced Dec. 1 that it will move the sixth-grade classes from all of its Monroe County elementary schools to a centralized middle school at Siena Catholic Academy in Brighton at the start of the 2012-13 school year. School and parish officials expressed mixed reactions to the decision, and all four affiliated Catholic high schools in Monroe County announced plans to add sixth-grade classes to their existing junior-high programs.
The decision to move sixth grades to Siena was part of a three-pronged effort to increase the stability of Monroe County’s Catholic schools, according to diocesan superintendent Anne Willkens Leach. The plan also calls for the reopening of Holy Cross School in Charlotte, which was closed at the end of the 2007-08 school year, and the consolidation of Cathedral School at Holy Rosary in Rochester and Mother of Sorrows School in Greece at Holy Cross. Monroe County’s Catholic elementary schools also are reverting to parish control by 2012, according to a plan reviewed and recommended to Bishop Matthew H. Clark by the Diocesan School Board.
Most public-school districts in Monroe County operate separate middle schools housing their sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Willkens Leach explained. Sometimes students will leave their Catholic elementary schools after fifth grade, rather than staying to complete sixth grade, in order to enter public middle schools at the same time as their peers. Diocesan officials hope the new configuration will encourage parents to keep their children enrolled in the Catholic school system through middle school and beyond, she said.
"It’s our goal to keep all of our children in Catholic education from kindergarten through 12th grade," she said.
Eighty-five to 88 percent of Siena Catholic Academy’s eighth-grade graduates go on to Catholic high schools, according to Siena’s principal, Timothy Leahy. Leahy said he believes the new configuration will put the diocesan Catholic school system on a more level playing field with the public school districts. Siena currently draws students from nearly all of the two dozen or so public districts in Monroe County and even some from Avon and other areas outside the county, he added.
Currently, 35 percent to 43 percent of students who graduate from sixth grade at Monroe County Catholic elementary schools enroll at Siena for their seventh-grade years, Leahy said, and he expects a similar percentage of fifth-grade graduates will choose Siena for sixth grade in the fall of 2012.
John Bellini, principal at St. Louis School in Pittsford, said many St. Louis graduates choose to attend Siena after sixth grade, so for many students it may be a natural transition.
"I do think that aligning our elementary school and our middle school to be more parallel to the public school alignment might be … something that will overall help our enrollment," Bellini said.
There’s been some discussion about using St. Louis’ former sixth-grade classrooms to expand the school’s preschool for the 2012-13 school year, but no definite plans have been made thus far, he said.
The school community is concerned about the faculty and personnel that will be affected by the elementary schools’ loss of the sixth grades, he noted.
"We obviously hope that there would be opportunities for them, either at Siena or if a private school opens up a grade six," Bellini said.
Sixth-grade teachers in Catholic schools may apply for positions created by the addition of sixth grades at Siena and the Catholic high schools, Willkens Leach said. Additionally, the state’s elementary certification encompasses kindergarten to sixth grade, so sixth-grade teachers would be able to teach other grades at Catholic schools if there are openings, she added.
"We will do everything we can to keep them employed," she said.
Father Robert Schrader, pastor of Rochester’s Peace of Christ Parish, said he has serious reservations about the planned sixth-grade reconfiguration. Peace of Christ is home to St. John Neumann School, and Father Schrader said he and the other pastors of parishes hosting schools were told Nov. 11 that the diocese might move the schools’ sixth grades. Less than three weeks later, the diocese announced that the sixth grades would indeed be moving.
"I’m sure there are arguments on both sides of the fence, but the decision to remove sixth grade from the remaining Catholic elementary schools that we have in Monroe County as of 2012 seems to have been made with haste and very little input," Father Schrader said.
Father Schrader is himself a product of Catholic schools, which he attended from kindergarten all the way through college and major seminary, he said. A strong advocate of Catholic education, Father Schrader said Catholic education worked years ago when the schools were under parish governance and included seventh and eighth grades. Several studies conducted in recent years have shown there are benefits to keeping the sixth, seventh and eighth grades in elementary schools, especially in urban environments, he said.
"If the diocese is getting out of managing Catholic schools, then they should allow us at the parishes to decide what configuration works best for the population we serve," Father Schrader said. "If anything, we should be adding grades seven and eight, not subtracting grade six."
With Bishop Clark’s permission, all of the four Catholic high schools in Monroe County — Bishop Kearney High School in Irondequoit, Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton, and Rochester’s McQuaid Jesuit High School and Aquinas Institute — have announced plans to add sixth grades beginning in the 2012-13 school year. Bishop Kearney’s trustees, for example, unanimously approved the sixth grade’s addition shortly after Bishop Clark approved the move, according to Donna Dedee, the school’s president and chief executive officer.
"It makes perfect sense to structure the Catholic system this way to match the configuration most public school districts use for middle school," Dedee said. "This will provide much more continuity for families who reach the critical decision-making time at the end of fifth grade whether they will remain in Catholic school or make the transition to public schools. Through this, we hope the new configuration will make their decision much easier."
Aquinas’ faculty and staff already are familiar with the needs of middle-school students and are eager to extend their faith-driven curriculum to sixth graders, according to Michael Daley, the school’s president.
"While adding a sixth grade to our campus presents another opportunity for families, we are committed to maintaining our high academic standards and manageable class sizes," he said.
Mercy, meanwhile, is well-positioned to add a sixth grade in its separate middle-school wing, noted Suzanne Johnston, president.
"Our principal, Terry Quinn, is an experienced middle-school educator known statewide for his leadership in middle-school education, and Mercy’s middle-school faculty is committed to meeting the unique needs of the emerging adolescent," she said.