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Closing of Immaculata Academy in Hamburg came as a surprise

Robert Choboy received the robocall from Immaculata Academy officials around 3:15 p.m. Friday telling the father of two students to check his email for “an important message” from the school.

The email that announced the closing of the all-girls academy in the Town of Hamburg caught parents and students off guard. Many had just returned from New York City with the Immaculata Bears, the varsity basketball team that last week made it to the state quarterfinals.

“It was stunning, a complete shock to everyone,” said Choboy. “There were no rumors. Usually you hear this months and weeks in advance. My kids went to St. John Vianney for grade school. They were constantly going through the closing rumor cycle.”

Alyssa Choboy, 18, is one of the 50 Immaculata seniors who will make up the last graduating class. Her younger sister, Abby, who is 16, would have entered the school’s senior class of 2017.

“That’s going to be so weird,” said Alyssa, who will pursue chemical engineering. “I planned on coming home from college to see my sister play basketball.”

On Saturday, the unexpected news of the academy’s closing began to sink in. While parents gathered their children to discuss the emotional event, school officials met with reporters to share their reasons for ending an 88-year tradition that produced 4,000 graduates.

A number of factors contributed to the decision, said Sister Ann Marie Hudzina, general minister of the order. First, the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph – down to 60 members – have a median age of 80.

“Coming to terms with diminishment as an individual and as a congregation, we realized there were implications for Immaculata Academy,” said Hudzina.

Add the declining economy and a decrease in the number of school-age children that will continue to decline an additional 10 percent in the next few years, said Hudzina.

“We subsidized $7.5 million for the last 13 years, but between 2008 and 2013 we began to realize our reality was changing,” said Hudzina.

In 2008, the nuns told the executive committee, the school’s administration, faculty and staff they would give them $3.5 million, part of the $7.5 million subsidy, Hudzina said.

“We told them they needed to become more independent,” she said. “We honored that commitment until the end of the academic year 2012-13. We did it so the school could become financially stable.”

The subsidy was used to grow investment, pay capital expenses, enhance marketing, increase tuition assistance and scholarships. But the school still needed an elevator, playing fields and a boiler, said Hudzina.

A development officer was hired. A capital campaign of $1 million was set to begin in 2008, but it was stalled by a stagnant stock market. When the campaign finally started in 2012, it never came close to its goal.

“The last four years we were struggling to make the halfway point,” said Jill Monaco, school principal. “Our donor bases were not there.”

Choboy, who works as a software engineering and program manager, lives in Lancaster with his wife, Sue, and their children. He attended the capital campaign’s kickoff meeting held at the house of the Parents Guild president.

“We thought $1 million was an aggressive goal,” said Choboy. “The problem was that they were looking to raise the money from the same people who were already paying tuition. It was a far-fetched idea because you were squeezing money from a source that may be tapped out. It was unrealistic.”

Chuck Hayes is director of marketing and communications for Catholic Health. His daughter graduated from Immaculata in 2011. Hayes, too, was active in the school’s Parents Guild.

“There was never anything formal stated to the parents that the sisters were putting this money forward, and that we were supposed to make it grow,” said Hayes. “Putting it out there that we are in perilous financial footing has a negative impact on the ability to attract and maintain students. Attracting students is a precarious endeavor especially when the parents are expected to pay upwards of $9,000.”

Of course, closing the school, with its 180-student enrollment, was not the only option, said Hudzina.

“The board discussed the possibility of running an independent school for young women,” said Hudzina. “Then it would no longer be a Catholic school for girls, and that is the reason many parents chose our school for their daughters. If it were to start as a new entity, the current model would be dissolved. There would be a lot more financial resources needed.”

Hudzina said the nuns wanted to make sure there would be a compensation package for the faculty and staff. But, she said, “if we maintained the school for another year we would be dipping into those finances.”

School administrators are determined to keep the school running smoothly until it closes at the end of the semester. Counselors from Catholic Charities will be on hand Monday to talk with students, said Monaco. Graduation will take place as scheduled,as will all of the events that accompany the end of a school year. No plans have been made for future use of the school building.

The decision on how to inform the parents of the school’s closing was made after consulting other schools that faced the same dilemma.

“We discussed having an assembly,” said Hudzina. “Other schools advised that would not be a way to tell young women that their school was closing.”

Principal Monaco insisted the parents would be the best people to tell their children the school is closing – privately.

“To tell 300 people in an auditorium is not personal,” she said. “It lacks compassion and individuality. That’s why we decided to send the email out after faculty and staff were notified at 2:15 p.m. Friday. We asked that parents not notify the media, but within 15 minutes it was on social media.”

To ensure no students stayed at school, Monaco cancelled all after-school activities. Parents were notified to pick their children up after their last class on Friday.

George and Mary Ann Kline of West Seneca send all three of their girls to Immaculata: Kristin, 18, a senior; Courtney, 17, a junior, and Kailey, 15, a freshman.

“The dismissal was unusual,” Mary Anne Kline said. “The way they made the announcement was kind of frightening to them, and then we received the call. They asked me to read them the email over the phone,” said the mother, who was not home at the time.

“I was reading the words but it wasn’t really sinking in,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. Immaculata is a close family, a tight group of kids. The school is wonderful and taught the girls to live as Christians. Even though the doors are shutting, the love and friendship will carry over. It will carry them where they go.”

Her husband had different thoughts. “They could have told us before, not just tell us at 3 o’clock,” said George Kline. “They didn’t even ask us if they could raise the tuition. I would have liked a chance to try to keep it open.”

email jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com