Bracing for an influx of 100 or more students in September, the pastor and principal at St. John Vianney School in Orchard Park expect to hire at least four new teachers, build a new science lab and add classrooms.
St. Andrew Country Day School in the Town of Tonawanda, which has been losing enrollment for years and is less than half the size it was in 2004, may finally see the decline halted this fall.
SS. Peter & Paul Community School in Hamburg anticipates its largest enrollment in more than a decade, with 118 children registering as new students for classes in all grade levels.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” said Patrick L. Riester, principal at SS. Peter & Paul. “I love to see my school grow, but I don’t like to see it happen at the cost of other Catholic schools closing.”
Bishop Richard J. Malone’s announcement in January that 10 parish elementary schools will close at the end of this academic year sent hundreds of parents scrambling to find new schools for their children.
At the same time, school leaders are clambering to figure out exactly how many students will be in classrooms this fall.
Malone has called the closing decisions final, but little about Catholic education in Western New York seems settled.
Some parents are still battling Malone over his decisions, protesting outside the bishop’s home, seeking Vatican intervention and considering lawsuits to keep their schools open.
About 1,000 students will be displaced by the closings. Diocese of Buffalo officials had anticipated 70 percent of them will attend Catholic schools that remain open.
So far, the retention rate appears to be higher, said Sister Carol Cimino, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
The diocese won’t have firm numbers until August at the earliest, Cimino said.
“People are notorious for making up their minds at the last minute,” she said.
Some parents already have decided against continuing with Catholic education. “For me at this point, there really isn’t an option that’s viable,” said Jennifer Morgan, whose daughter, Sophia, is in first grade at St. Vincent de Paul School in Elma, which is set to close in June.
Morgan would like her daughter to stay in a Catholic school, but the other schools are too far away or have class sizes that are too large, she said. She plans to teach Sophia, 6, at home, at least for the 2014-15 school year.
“I want to see how the dust settles,” she said.
Handling the influx
At Immaculate Conception School in East Aurora, Principal Karen Adamski expects an influx of at least 25 children, but the number could be higher.
“We were hoping we would know by now definitely who’s coming, but we don’t,” she said. “We found that people were registered in three schools. It’s put us kind of in a bind.”
Queen of Heaven School in West Seneca had a whopping 225 new registrations, but not all of them are expected to enroll in September.
“We’re trying to get a real figure pretty soon,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Quinlivan, pastor. “It’s getting into kind of crunch time.”
St. John Vianney received 110 new registrations and had to put some kids on a waiting list.
As it looks now, the school’s enrollment will grow by more than 50 percent, with the building reaching capacity, Principal Deborah A. Staszak said.
“I think there’s a new excitement. Of course, it does come with a bit of anxiety, but it’s a good thing to have,” said the Rev. Robert L. Gebhard, the pastor.
The change is dramatic from just a few months ago, when parents, teachers and administrators were on pins and needles awaiting word from the diocese about the fate of area schools.
Last fall, the diocese put all schools on notice about sweeping changes.
For those schools that will remain open, Malone’s announcement in January came as both a reprieve and a shot in the arm.
“When we got the word, there was relief; there was shock,” Staszak said.
Not knowing whether St. John Vianney would remain open, Gebhard last summer put on hold some planned renovations.
Those improvements will now move forward, as soon as classes end in June. Some underutilized space in the school building will be converted into additional classrooms. If needed, the school could add temporary space for classrooms or offices on its Southwestern Boulevard campus, Gebhard said.
‘A different trajectory’
In Amherst, St. Benedict School may add 20 to 50 students, mostly from nearby St. Leo the Great School, where about 100 students will be displaced when it closes, but also from beyond Amherst. Some potential students and their families from Orchard Park and Elma have toured St. Benedict, said Principal Molly L. Halady.
In the fall, Amherst will still have four Catholic elementary schools within 3 miles of each other.
“I think everyone thought there were going to be more schools overhauled,” Halady said.
But the schools in Amherst are “all thriving in their own way,” she said.
More potential students live in Amherst than in other parts of Western New York, she said.
Enrollment at St. Benedict dropped by 45 percent between 2002-03 and 2012-13. But Halady sees reason for optimism about potential growth because St. Benedict Church has had a large number of births and baptisms in recent years.
Kathy C. Dimitrievski expressed similar enthusiasm for the future of St. Andrew Country Day School, where she is principal.
St. Andrew’s, which had the steepest enrollment decline of any school in Erie County from 2003 to 2013, now projects two kindergarten classes in the fall.
“This is definitely a different trajectory for our school,” Dimitrievski said.
“I have a sense that we’re going to gain at each grade level, and it’s going to be strongest at the early childhood grade levels. We’re not losing anymore. We’ve been able to turn it around.”
A plan approved last week to eliminate two elementary schools in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District in 2016-17 also could benefit a school such as St. Andrew’s. The district’s consolidation plan, under consideration for a couple of years, played a role in the diocese’s decision to keep St. Andrew’s open.
“It made sense strategically,” Cimino said.
Gains have been short-lived
Diocesan officials have routinely explained school closings over the years as an effort to enhance Catholic education as a whole in Western New York.
Over the years, the closings of some Catholic schools boosted enrollment at others that remained open. But those gains often were short-lived.
Take, for example, St. Margaret School on Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo. When St. Rose of Lima School was among 14 schools shut down by the diocese in June 2007, St. Margaret – located about a mile away – gained 32 students across all grade levels for the 2007-08 academic year.
But St. Margaret couldn’t sustain the growth after 2008-09. And by 2010-11, the school’s enrollment was down to 114, below the number it had 2006-07. The diocese shut down St. Margaret a year later.
Fourteen Holy Helpers in West Seneca saw an even bigger boost in 2007, after the closings of St. Josaphat and Resurrection schools in Cheektowaga. Enrollment climbed to 228 in 2007-08, up from 155 in 2006-07. Within five years, though, Fourteen Holy Helpers was back at 155 students. It has 136 students this year and is among the 10 schools on the closure list.
Nonetheless, Catholic school officials call the latest round of closings more strategic and forward-thinking than those in the past. It will bring the number of school buildings in line with the population of families seeking a Catholic education, leading to stronger schools and potential growth.
“At the same time, we’re boosting programs,” Cimino said.
5 entities ‘coming together’
Cimino wants Catholic education to be so attractive and academically rigorous that parents don’t ask whether they can afford tuition, but whether they can afford not to send their children to a Catholic school.
Some pastors and principals say they are working on other ways to welcome new families into their new “community schools.”
Gebhard said that what currently is St. John Vianney parish school will be a new and different entity in the fall, welcoming displaced students from four schools on the closing list: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, St. Bernadette, St. Vincent de Paul and Fourteen Holy Helpers.
“Our school is redefined by the fact that these five major entities are coming together,” Gebhard said of St. John Vianney and the four other schools.
He’s trying to put together a committee of parents from those schools that would come up with ideas aimed at bringing everyone in the new community school on “equal footing” and involving people in the social life of the school.
“We’re assessing everything. It’s not going to happen instantaneously,” Gebhard said.
A transition committee also is being created at SS. Peter & Paul, which won’t be a parish school any longer, Riester said.
“We are serving the Hamburg community as a community school,” he said. “This is our new entity.”
SS. Peter & Paul needs to hire seven or eight teachers, some of whom might come from the schools that are closing.
If it works out, the familiar faces may help students from closed buildings feel more at home in their new school, Riester said.
“We have major healing that needs to be done,” he said. “The bottom line is, we’re left to welcome these children and keep them in Catholic education, and we take that as a serious challenge.”