Facing the Ax
Six Catholic schools in Manhattan could close this year. Should they be saved? This year may be the last for six Catholic elementary schools in Manhattan. On Nov. 26, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which governs groups of Catholic Church parishes under the direction of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, announced the impending closure of 26 of its 159 elementary schools across the state. Six of those, including three on the Upper West Side, two uptown and one downtown, are in New York City. Catholic schools across the nation have suffered from declining enrollments and tightening budgets for years, so the archdiocese decided to take a proactive approach to curbing losses by putting a condition on its most cash-strapped schools: Come up with a plan to turn things around by Jan. 3, or board up your windows and lock your doors come June. This is not the archdiocese's first round of hard cuts. At the end of 2010, the religious institution listed 32 of its elementary and high schools as "at risk" of closure. These schools saw a decline in enrollment of 71 percent over five years, according to the archdiocese's announcement. When income from tuition drops below the cost of running a school, the archdiocese is forced to use its own resources to cover the deficit. Of the 32 at-risk schools, 28 were shut down the following summer. "The plan is to create Catholic schools that are stable, viable and provide an excellent education, but that also provide those extras that parents seek for their children-computer labs, etc.," explained Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese's director of communications. The recent and impending closures are the culmination of the archdiocese's three-year research and action plan called "Pathways to Excellence," which aims to recalibrate the educational mission to ensure its longevity. According to the archdiocese's website, "Today, the schools of the Archdiocese of New York are at a crossroads. ... [Pathways to Excellence] is the beginning of a longer-term process for ensuring the future of the archdiocese's elementary schools." While principals and parents of the schools at risk of closure agree with this initiative's goal, they do not want to see their schools shut down. The schools still have an important place in the archdiocese's vision, they argue. "It's a family here," said Don Jovan, principal at Holy Name School on West 97th Street, which has been open for over 100 years. "It's a great little place. We were hoping for a chance to build it up." He noted that the school's academic performance has been excellent over the past four years and cited a wealth of extracurricular activities-including a mandatory theater arts program that prepares students for public speaking and performance-as an example of the school's unique value to students. Jovan admitted, however, that he understood the school's grim financial situation; in his four years at the school, enrollment has dropped from 435 to 230 students. "People can't pay tuition in this economy," he said. Over 90 percent of students in his school come from minority families. Still, he remained positive about the school's future. "I'm hopeful that we're going to have another breath of life," he said. Venus Trujillo, a mother of two children at Holy Name, helped circulate a petition to keep the school open among families and alumni of school. "I can tell you as parents we are very disappointed," she said. "Holy Name School is amazing and has the technology that many other schools in the area do not have for their students. The teachers are wonderful and really care for our children." Two principals of at-risk schools in Manhattan contended that in addition to quality programming, their schools' diversity and history makes them worth preserving. "Over 30 languages are spoken here," said Sister Mary Theresa Dixon, principal of Holy Cross School on West 43rd Street. She emphasized that the school has provided a low-cost education to immigrant families since it opened 135 years ago. "Our focus is to serve this immigrant population, and to provide the children with opportunities they wouldn't have had before," she said. Principal Donna Gabella of St. Gregory the Great on West 90th Street called her school "a family community-a multi-racial, multi-generational community." "We serve a wide population across the boroughs," she said. "We're not your Wall Street people. We're your everyday people." Catholic schools traditionally have served as a middle ground between public and non-denominational private schools, a low-cost, high-quality alternative to floundering public schools and unaffordable elite private institutions for students sometimes living in the city's rougher neighborhoods. In hard financial times, however, Catholic schools increasingly have had to weigh the importance of retaining lower-income students against the need to raise tuition or focus funds on programming instead of student assistance to stay afloat. Some Catholic schools in Manhattan have experimented with adjusting costs and have seen promising results. St. Stephen of Hungary School on East 82nd Street was once designated for closure, but began appealing to higher-income students by adding features like small class sizes and early-age extracurricular programs. Three years ago, the school's annual fund raised $2,000. This year, it raised $120,000. Enrollment has soared. Still, while international diversity remains strong, the school's enrollment of African-American students has dropped, as has the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches. According to St. Stephen's Head of School Katherine Peck, the school made the choice to reinvent itself based on the needs of the specific local community it serves. "In order for schools not only to survive, but to thrive, it has to be a community-based effort," she said. "Every community is so different, with different programming needs. We wanted to be sure to provide what our community and neighborhood were in need of most." Peck acknowledged the challenge for schools like Holy Name whose needs outweigh their resources, and said that the burden was on those who believe in the value of a Catholic school education to donate to the schools. "Right now Catholic schools are doing great, and yet we don't have enough people out there willing to underwrite their costs," she said. "Catholic schools are beneficial to everyone. If we have a system that is working and has a proven track record of success, there should be more people who are willing to support these schools and families financially." Donors are exactly what the at-risk schools were seeking as they scrambled to put together action plans that prove their sustainability over the coming years to the archdiocese. Parents and administrators worked together to host fundraisers, circulate petitions and reach out to alumni and elected officials for support. At Holy Cross School, the administration assembled a volunteer development committee that includes an attorney, a former admissions director at Penn State, a sales and marketing assistant and a grant writer. Downtown, State Sen. Dan Squadron and Assemblyman Sheldon Silver wrote to the archdiocese asking that St. James and St. Joseph School on Monroe Street remain open. "Before closing this school, we ask that you please explore all possible options to keep it open or at least offer families a comparable choice for their children," Squadron and Silver wrote. "The process ought to be carried out in consultation with the parents. This school is an important part of our community, and we urge you to pursue every available means to keep it open." Zwilling, the archdiocese's spokesperson, claimed that the Archdiocese of New York does not anticipate another round of school closures after this summer's. "We hope this is the end of this ," he said. Nevertheless, as long as hard financial times persist and free public charter schools, which often attract the same student populations as Catholic school, continue to proliferate, the fate of Catholic schools in Manhattan will remain uncertain. "I'm fairly pessimistic [about Catholic schools' future]," said Abraham Lackman, a scholar-in-residence at Albany Law School's Government Law Center who recently published a paper on the effect of public charter schools on Catholic schools' enrollments. "My evidence shows that for every charter school that has opened in the last decade, a Catholic school has closed," Lackman said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if 270 new charter schools are opened in the next decade, particularly in New York, the impact on the Catholic school system will be devastating." Lackman and Zwilling agree, however, that the disappearance of Catholic schools in Manhattan would be terrible for the city. "I think it would be a tragedy for education in general, and for poor districts particularly, if Catholic schools keep closing," said Lackman, who argued that more choices for education is better for all students. "Our schools are already overcrowded," said Zwilling. "If we were to add a bunch of students back into the public system, it would be an enormous burden on taxpayers and the city." The six at-risk Manhattan schools, which also include Annunciation School on West 131st Street and St. Jude School on West 204th Street, already submitted their plans for survival to the archdiocese. According to Zwilling, the archdiocese will announce the final list of closures in the next two weeks.
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