At an open house for a Catholic school on closing list, parents and teachers cling to hope - The Buffalo News
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At an open house for a Catholic school on closing list, parents and teachers cling to hope

In classroom after classroom, teachers tried to be optimistic as parents of prospective students made their way through the open house.

But they could not be definitive about the future of St. Mary of the Lake School in Hamburg. It’s on the list of schools the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo intends to close.

“We keep plugging away,” kindergarten teacher Kristina Dahmer told Dawn Clabeaux, a parent who toured the school to see if it might be a good fit for her son, Carson.

A few minutes later, Clabeaux walked down the hall to another room, where the teacher mustered a “we’re-hoping-for-the-best” response to a query about the school’s fate.

Toward the end of the tour, social studies and English teacher Tayler Cole told Clabeaux, “I’ve got my fingers crossed.”

An air of uncertainty permeated the hallways and classrooms throughout the open house, which seemed both an act of defiance and an expression of school pride.

Bishop Richard J. Malone announced last month that St. Mary of the Lake will be one of 10 Catholic elementary schools shut down in June.

But the parish that runs the school isn’t ready to let go just yet, and school leaders went ahead with the annual event, anticipating Malone could change his mind.

The school’s floors sparkled. Student artwork adorning the walls evoked a sense of a creative learning environment. Polite parents leading tours emphasized the school’s small class sizes and family atmosphere.

Long shot

But no one was particularly convincing about the chances its doors will open again in September.

Even ardent supporters know that’s a long shot.

Lori Geisler, who has a fifth-grader at the school and another child who graduated from there, greeted Clabeaux cheerfully at the door and served as her guide for the open-house tour.

Geisler was on hand to show parents the building “and say, ‘This is what we have to offer,’ and to keep a positive attitude at this point,” she said.

“We’re just planning on moving ahead at this point as if it would be open next year,” she added.

Parishioners formally asked Malone to change his mind, but the bishop reiterated in a recent letter that his decision was final. A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said schools on the closure list were offering “false hope” to students and their parents by hosting open houses and registering students for the 2014-15 academic year.

But St. Mary of the Lake supporters said they have been upfront with families about the school’s prospects and have made no promises.

About 90 students have signed up to attend in September – a registration rate that outpaced previous years.

Still, new students will be hard to come by. Teachers and volunteer tour guides vastly outnumbered the people who toured the school.

Five families

Principal Kristine Hider said she met five new families during the two-hour open house, most of whom were looking to register prekindergartners and kindergartners.

“I told them we were going through the process of staying open,” she said. “I tried not to give any false hope, but I tried to impress that as a parish and as a school, we hope to continue what we’ve done for 57 years.”

St. Francis of Assisi School in the City of Tonawanda held an open house Sunday, despite also being on the closure list.

Interim Principal Louise Lopardi said about six students not currently enrolled at St. Francis registered at the open house. In addition, most of the current students at St. Francis already have signed up to return to the school in September.

But the school did not discourage families from registering with other schools, as well.

“We do not want to leave people with the wrong impression,” she said.

Clabeaux, a member of St. Mary of the Lake Church, knew the diocese announced the school’s closing, but she attended the open house anyway, to get a better sense of what the school offers.

A product of Catholic schools, Clabeaux lives near St. Mary of the Lake. Her 3-year-old son regularly plays at the school’s playground. And she has long envisioned him attending classes there. She planned to register him for prekindergarten in September.

“This was my whole plan,” she said. “From the time he was a baby, I was like, ‘I know where’s he’s going to kindergarten.’ ”

During the tour, Clabeaux asked Dahmer what she thought of the school’s chances for staying open. That led to a discussion of how Dahmer’s kindergartners have reacted to the news of the closing.

“It’s a little bit easier for me every day because my kids really don’t understand it yet,” Dahmer said.

Student response

Sometimes, the kids respond to the changes in the offing by asserting that Dahmer will be at their new school anyway.

Dahmer tells them, somewhat awkwardly, “probably not.”

In a tidy first-grade classroom, 11 desks formed two rows, labeled with the first names of children: Grayson, Sage, Kristoff and Ella Rose, among others.

Kim Mandiak, who has spent 14 years at St. Mary of the Lake, rose from behind her desk to greet Clabeaux and give her sense of what goes on behind these walls.

“It is,” said Mandiak, “a very, very homey school.”

Second-grade teacher Maris Bateman talked about her current lesson plan: persuasive writing.

Bateman smiled when Clabeaux said the topic seemed a bit advanced for 7-year-olds.

“The second-grade curriculum has stepped up a lot in recent years,” she replied.

Like Mandiak, Bateman has 11 students in her class.

Clabeaux liked the small numbers, and Bateman said she liked it, too, because she could work so closely with all of the students and bring them up to speed.

“There’s a lot of attention given to these kids,” she said.

In a school that enrolled 117 students during the 2012-13 school year – about one-half of the school’s capacity – most classes are small. Six of the grades between kindergarten and eighth grade had class sizes of a dozen or fewer students. The biggest class that school year – the sixth grade – had 21 students. The school’s tuition this school year is $2,832, and less for any additional children a family sends to the school.

Future plans

In the hall, Geisler talked with Clabeaux about plans for a new stock market club at the school, to go along with other after-school activities like soccer, basketball, a garden club, a book club and a community service program.

Janet Griffin, another parent volunteer, introduced herself to Clabeaux and asked her if she had visited the school during the day.

“It’s like ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ It’s so warm and loving,” said Griffin, the parent of a kindergartner at the school.

The children, she added, are “so polite. No bullying. No pushing.” Older kids look after younger ones, she said.

“There’s no intimidation at all. They watch out for each other. That’s a wonderful thing – and rare,” Griffin said. “It’s respect, and it’s rare and wonderful.”

Geisler has led school tours in previous years. She remembered her own introduction to St. Mary of the Lake years ago, when she was checking out schools for her older son, now a Canisius High School student.

“A lot of people come here because they feel like it’s warm and welcoming, and as soon as you walk in the door you can feel that. That’s what happened to us,” she said.

But now Geisler has gone to other schools to check them out for her son, who will be in sixth grade next school year, just in case the doors of St. Mary of the Lake don’t open in the fall.

“We’re doing what we have to do by visiting other schools,” she said. “But we’re definitely holding on to this one, fighting for it.”


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