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Preparing to say a sad farewell Parents, pupils and staff at St. John Elementary try to deal with its closing

Parents, teachers and pupils at St. John de LaSalle Catholic School have had nearly three weeks to try to absorb the news that the elementary school will close in June.

The ache hasn't softened.

"It's very tough to talk about because everyone's so upset," said Amy Hilliard, who teaches at the school and has a daughter, Destiny, who attends first grade there.

"I wish they'd change their minds and keep the school open," Hilliard said. "I don't see any reason for this."

The Niagara Falls Catholic School Network blamed shrinking enrollment when it announced Feb. 6 that, after serving children for 88 years, St. John would close at the end of the school year.

In 1960, the city had 11 Catholic elementary schools.

St. John, at the corner of Buffalo Avenue and South 86th Street in the LaSalle section of the city, is one of three Catholic elementary schools that remain and has the lowest enrollment -- 44 pupils in prekindergarten, 76 in K-5.

Prince of Peace Elementary School, also in LaSalle, has the highest, with 221 pupils in pre-K through fifth grade.

Feelings at St. John run the spectrum, from depression and disappointment to disillusionment, even a little anger. Those most affected are frustrated because there is nothing they can do about it.

The school community is in mourning.

Principal Mary Ann Ross, who has worked at the school for 25 years, would not discuss it. She said people are upset and she saw no point in dragging everything up again.

"No matter what we said or what plan we came up with [to keep the school open], the network didn't want to hear it," Ross said, "so it's senseless to rehash it. There's a lot of grieving going on, and we are trying to help our parents and children to move on."

Tina Lysiak, who has two preschoolers at St. John, helped circulate petitions to keep the school open and got about 100 signatures.

"It's a sad day for everyone," Lysiak said. "I feel bad because it's like a family there."

The parish decided to retain its prekindergarten program, but school officials have already started to encourage parents to consider one of the two elementary schools that will remain in the fall. Many of those parents, and their children, have already toured the other schools to get a feel for what's to come next school year.

Monsignor Leonard E. Biniszkiewicz, Catholic vicar for Western Niagara County who oversees the school network, said he has great empathy for the people of St. John.

But he added that the network -- comprising 14 parishes that help fund the schools -- had little choice if Catholic education is to remain solvent and available in the Niagara Falls area. He's been pastor of St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus Parish for about 19 years.

"It happened to St. Teresa's when I came there in the 1980s," he said. "It's always painful for a parish to lose a school. I know. I've been there."

Biniszkiewicz said St. John had to go primarily because it was consistently losing student population, and the cost for all three schools was running at a deficit. He estimated that deficit could have reached $125,000 next year if all three schools remained open.

It was not St. John's fault.

"St. John's is an excellent school," the vicar said. "It does a great job. We did it because St. John's had the lowest enrollment from kindergarten through fifth grade, and we couldn't afford to keep it open.

"It's not like they were spending too much money. They weren't. The network needed to find a way to keep Catholic schools financially sound, and we couldn't do that with all three schools open. Our hope is in keeping one school open at each end of the city that can accommodate a lot of students. We didn't want people to have to travel too terribly far if they want their children to have a Catholic education."

>"Creative accounting"

At least right now, Ginny Elledge and Stacey Paul, the vice president and president, respectively, of the St. John Home-School Association, take little comfort in the decision.

"I think we were done wrong," said Elledge, whose daughter, Meghan, is in fourth grade and will never get the chance to graduate from St. John.

"I'm really disappointed as far as the Niagara Falls Catholic School Network goes," she said. "I think it wasn't set up correctly. I think we got hurt when they took away the sixth, seventh and eighth grades and moved them to St. Dominic Savio Middle School. I'm sure the network concept was a good one, but things have not been going the way they're supposed to."

As for closing, Elledge said, "It's all a numbers-crunching game. It's just creative accounting. They can make the numbers say whatever they want them to say. That's just my personal opinion."

She doesn't know where she'll send her daughter.

"I don't believe it will be one of the network schools," Elledge said. "I don't think I'll be supporting the network" at this point in time. I'm just very disappointed for my fourth-grader and myself. I went to St. John's and graduated along with all my brothers and sisters. It's a shame. It affects the kids a lot. They've been together for a long time.

"The teachers are wonderful. It's a wonderful family here. I'm going to miss it terribly."

Paul sent her children to St. John because "of the friendliness of the parishioners and the school staff." She said she realizes the network had to do something to consolidate services but felt it could have paid more attention to what parishioners thought.

"Mrs. Ross and Father Lynn [Shumway, St. John pastor,] proposed a way to save 25 percent of our budget, and they didn't want to hear about it," Paul said. "I think the network needs to reassess what it's doing. They said we have low enrollment, and we do only have eight kids in our third grade. But we just started up our prekindergarten programs a couple years ago and have 44 kids in them. If just half those children stay on, we'd have a strong enrollment. But they didn't give us a chance."

>Moving forward

Many St. John parents are already registering their children to go to Prince of Peace and Mount Carmel elementary schools.

Prince of Peace Principal Christopher Hope said the school already has registered 11 pupils from St. John and has had many inquiries.

"I've given families numerous tours of our school," he said.

Jeannine Fortunate, Mount Carmel's principal, said the school has had inquiries from 10 families and three or four pupils from St. John have registered.

"There's more than enough room for any child that wants a Catholic education at either Mount Carmel or Prince of Peace," Hope said. "That includes every student from St. John's."

And neither school will be closed, Fortunate pitched in.

Shumway said the closing was the network's call.

"I'd have preferred we stayed open," Shumway said, "but [what pastor] wouldn't? I apologized at Mass Sunday to the parents and the children for what they've been going through. It's depressing. You are losing something special. They've been going through a lot of emotional turmoil over it."

The parish will move on and make use of the school building.

Shumway said the prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds will continue on as the St. John Early Childhood Education Center. Those programs are parish programs and do not come under the authority of the network. He said the two teachers and the two aides that run the program will continue.

Religious instruction for 160 youngsters also will continue there.

In addition, Shumway said he expects many other programs to be housed there, possibly the parish offices and the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, which both are now in the parish convent.

As for most of the school's professional staff, he said they will probably look for teaching jobs elsewhere.

Meanwhile, St. John will leave a legacy symbolized by the Kozlowski family of Niagara Falls.

Eugene Kozlowski, 76, said four of his children graduated from St. John in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I don't know much about the school now," he said, "but I appreciated having St. John's here for my kids because it gave them the basic foundations for learning. They actually learned how to study at St. John's.

"They really prepared my kids. They must have. Three of them got through medical school and one's a teacher."


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