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Parents, students plead for Villa Maria school to stay open

Despite impassioned pleas Tuesday night to keep Villa Maria Academy operating until its freshman class reaches graduation, the school president said plans are to close as scheduled.

"At this time I would have to say . . . our decision remains," said Sister Mary Ambrose Wozniak. It was announced last Friday that the private Catholic high school for girls in Cheektowaga would close at the end of the current school year.

A dwindling student population -- only 15 girls took the entrance exam last month for the 2006-07 school year -- and a projected deficit of $500,000 are among the reasons cited for the closing. The Felician Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province, which has operated the school since 1918, said they can no longer afford to subsidize the school.

Current enrollment is 130, roughly one-fifth of what it was in the mid-1970s. Students and parents were informed in February about the financial and enrollment situations, Wozniak said.

More than 120 parents and students attended Tuesday's meeting, which was intended to help parents figure out what to do next. The media not only were barred from the meeting, but asked to wait in another room out of earshot of the session.

When the meeting broke up, parents and students talked emotionally about the impending closure and what they said is the Felician Sisters' refusal to answer their questions or consider their suggestions.

Sharon Herko, secretary of the academy's School Board, had one daughter in the class of 2003 and another graduating next year.

"The School Board wasn't privy to any of this information," Herko said. "The teachers were called into a meeting Friday afternoon. The kids were called into the (auditorium) and BAM!"

Shannon Farrell, a senior at Villa Maria Academy, said she wants answers.

"We want to know why we weren't told about it before, why the incoming freshman weren't told," Farrell said. "Why send your kid to a school that's going to close and they're not going to graduate?"

"I just want answers," Farrell said. "Even with the parents, they avoided many of the questions."

Parent Nicole Stenhouse said she suggested that classroom space be found at neighboring Villa Maria College "just to get the freshmen to graduate -- that's three years."

Many young women broke into tears and hugged their classmates as they emerged from the meeting.

"They should at least try to find a facility for all of them together," one student said.

The Felicians are offering grants to cover the difference in tuition for a year at other all-girls Catholic high schools or coeducational Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Buffalo.

Current tuition at Villa Maria Academy is $5,900 a year, but the Felicians say the cost of providing an education is $12,300 a year per student.

Stenhouse wants to know if the Felicians also will pick up the nonrefundable application fees, which typically range between $50 and $100.

Another parent, who wanted to remain anonymous, said, "They really have no idea how many seats are open in other schools."

Approximately an hour after the meeting ended, Villa Maria Academy's president met separately -- and privately -- with the media.

Wozniak acknowledged the ideas and thoughts expressed during the session with parents and students. "I just would have to take that all into consideration, what I heard tonight," she said.

Meanwhile, "The school is doing what it can to get them transferred into other schools," Wozniak said. "That plan is in operation."

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com

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