Ss. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic School in Auburn will close at the end of the current school year due to declining enrollment and a poor economy, according to Father Vasyl Colopelnic, administrator of the school and pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Parish.
The school and church is a part of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, Conn., which encompasses New York state. Bishop Paul P. Chomnycky of Stamford made the decision to close the school on April 23, Father Colopelnic said.
"I got the letter (from Bishop Chomnycky) on April 25. I immediately informed parents, teachers, staff," Father Colopelnic said. "We had a few meetings after that. While it’s very sad for us, from what I see, generally we understand the reality of the situation we have to face."
Father Colopelnic said he believes the economy in upstate New York has made it difficult for parents to afford sending their children to private schools, including Ss. Peter and Paul, which was founded in 1941. In recent years the school has struggled to recruit students, he said.
"Ideally we needed 100 students just to balance the budget," he said, noting that the school has enrolled between 70 and 80 students in each of the last few years. "This year we had 75, and 75 is a very low number for us."
Parishioners of Ss. Peter and Paul have generously supported the school, but the parish does not have the budget to do so during the 2013-14 school year, Father Colopelnic said. The school launched a recruitment drive in early spring, but by the end of March, only 45 students had registered for the next school year, he said. Personal phone calls and appeals to parents brought that number up to nearly 60, but that was not enough.
"With such a number this school cannot function," he said.
Father Colopelnic said Ss. Peter and Paul has students who come from both Ukrainian and Roman Catholic backgrounds, as well as Protestant students. Parents choose Ss. Peter and Paul because they appreciate the Catholic values taught there, so he said he expects many of the displaced students to enroll at St. Joseph School, which is located on the campus of St. Alphonsus Parish. Staff at the Roman Catholic school and parish have reached out to the Ss. Peter and Paul School community to let them know they’re welcome at St. Joseph, said Father Louis Vasile, pastor at St. Alphonsus.
"We have been working with the parish of Ss. Peter and Paul to make sure there’s been an efficient, coordinated transition for the children of the community," he said.
Ten of the displaced students had been enrolled at St. Joseph as of May 2, and Ss. Peter and Paul School families have been invited to tour St. Joseph School on May 8, 9 and 10, Father Vasile said.
Father Colopelnic, who as a priest of the Eastern Catholic rite is not bound by a promise of celibacy, said he and his wife plan to send their two children to St. Joseph.
"I will be closely cooperating with (St. Joseph) in this transition. I am very open … to be a bridge between us. I think we have to be thankful that we still have St. Joseph here in our town," he said.
Although members of the Ss. Peter and Paul community are sorry to see the school close after 72 years, they understand the reasons for its closure and are looking forward, Father Colopelnic said.
"We are extremely sad but we have to look for the blessings we had during these 72 years, for how much impact we had for these 72 years, educating good Christians. We have to move forward," he said.
A group of parents and community members in fact already is moving forward with plans to open a new, independent school in the Catholic tradition. Many parents, alumni and community members were "devastated" when they heard Ss. Peter and Paul School would be closing, said Tara Arpino, whose son is in fifth grade at the school.
"We said there is just no way this can happen. All of our children deserve the continuity and the chance to finish. We just didn’t want to take closing as an option," she said.
After talking with some people who are involved with Auburn’s Tyburn Academy, which opened in 1993 as an independent high school in the Catholic tradition, a group of people decided to open a similar school for students in the elementary grades, said Arpino, spokesperson for the newly formed John Paul II Learning Association. The group plans to name its school after the late pope and to adopt a classical model of education that will emphasize religion, reading, writing and arithmetic, Arpino said. This curriculum also will focus on teaching students to develop common sense, be curious and active learners, and think for themselves, she added.
"I think a lot of people will be interested in this new curriculum we’re promoting. I think it’s going to be the curriculum that brings us the children," Arpino said.
Parents already have pre-registered about 40 students for the proposed school’s kindergarten through sixth grades, she said, noting that the school also hopes to add a universal prekindergarten program. The John Paul II Learning Association has recruited a principal for next year, and members of the new school’s board of education already are meeting. The association hopes to keep the new school’s tuition as close as possible to Ss. Peter and Paul’s 2012-13 tuition rates, Arpino said. Those rates, according to Ss. Peter and Paul’s website, were $2,500 for each family’s first student, $850 for a second student and $500 for a third.
Arpino said the John Paul II Learning Association is hoping to rent the Ss. Peter and Paul School building from the Ukrainian Catholic parish, a possibility Father Colopelnic said the parish is considering.
"With regard to renting the building, I think the parish would be open to do this, but there have been no … decisions yet," he said.
Arpino said the organizers of the John Paul II Learning Association already have begun receiving donations and notes of support from the community at large, and momentum for the school is building.
"I think the community is very excited that something positive is going to come out of something that could be seen as a big negative," she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the proposed school, visit www.jp2la.org.