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Buffalo's first new Catholic school in 42 years opens today, and Bishop Henry J. Mansell said it is the beginning of plans to expand local Catholic education.

SS. Columba-Brigid Montessori School began classes with 19 pupils ages 3 through 5, and has plans to add higher grades each year.

The new school at Hickory and Eagle streets underlines the hopes of Catholic Diocese officials to open additional new schools in the Buffalo area, Bishop Mansell said.

"That is definitely my intent," he said. "I am interested in expanding and advancing Catholic education. It makes a big difference in the lives of young people and in the life of our community."

The last time a Catholic school opened in Buffalo was in 1957, when instruction began at Our Lady of Loretto School. In the suburbs, the last new school was St. Barnabas in Depew, which opened in 1967, according to diocese officials.

Only regional Catholic schools, which consolidated a number of smaller schools, have been created since then.

Enrollment in the Catholic schools of Western New York peaked in 1964, when 100,000 children attended 241 schools. Today, 29,379 students attend 109 schools. Following a long period of decline, enrollment has been fairly steady since about 1993, although it has dipped in the last two years.

Today's opening of SS. Columba-Brigid has further significance because it is housed in the former St. Columba Elementary School, which closed in the late 1980s, Bishop Mansell said.

"It's a rebirth," he said. "It's new life."

SS. Columba-Brigid also reflects the diocese's commitment to Buffalo's inner city, where only one Catholic school -- Catholic Central -- now operates, Bishop Mansell said.

"The need is particularly critical in the inner city," he said. "This is a neighborhood that could use a new school."

A recent federal study of private schools in 22 major urban areas shows Buffalo's private school enrollment is slightly above average, 18.4 percent vs. 15.8 percent overall in the other cities. Enrollment here is 15 percent minority, the second-lowest of the 22 cities, and well below the average of 43 percent.

Rosa Lamont found out about SS. Columba-Brigid from a flier she picked up at a social services agency, and enrolled her 3-year-old son, Malik, after talking with Sister Diane Bernbeck, director of the school.

"I like her approach," Lamont said. "I like what they're doing for the kids."

The emphasis on religion, Lamont added, makes it "something different than public schools."

The first 19 pupils will be taught in multi-age classrooms and will work independently under the supervision of two certified Montessori teachers and two teacher aides, said Sister Bernbeck.

"During the course of the day, every child will be doing something different," she said. "We want to give these kids a solid foundation for their future learning -- not only in language and math, but in intangible areas like increased concentration, becoming independent learners and taking responsibility for their own work."

The school is using two of three buildings that once housed St. Columba Elementary School, and spent about $250,000, most of it from donations, to renovate the facility, Sister Bernbeck said.

While yearly tuition is $3,000, scholarships reduce the price for individual families to what they can afford. Among the first 19 families, that ranges from $50 to $700.

Nardin Academy in Buffalo and Stella Niagara in Lewiston are the only other local Catholic schools using the Montessori method, Sister Bernbeck said.

It fits nicely with Catholic teachings because of an emphasis on "fostering a sense of respect for the individual, for their peers and for their environment," she said.

Most of the first 19 pupils are black or Hispanic. Sister Bernbeck said she did not know how many are Catholic.

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