Bal­ti­more Arch­dio­cese to close 3 schools, merge 2

$86 mil­lion pledged to mod­ern­ize re­main­ing build­ings

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Liz Bowie

The Arch­dio­cese of Bal­ti­more is clos­ing three Catholic schools and merg­ing two oth­ers amid de­clin­ing en­roll­ment and the need to up­grade ag­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

Se­ton Keough High School in South­west Bal­ti­more, St. Thomas Aquinas School in Ham­p­den, and John Paul Re­gional School in Wood­lawn will close in June, the arch­dio­cese told par­ents and teach­ers Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. As a re­sult, more than 350 stu­dents must en­roll in an­other pri­vate or public school.

In ad­di­tion, for the next school year, St. Clement Mary Hof­bauer in Rosedale will merge with St. Michael the Ar­changel School in Over­lea about four miles away.

Wil­liam E. Lori, arch­bishop of Balti- more, said en­roll­ment ap­pears to have sta­bi­lized af­ter decades of sharp de­clines — the sys­tem of nearly 50 pri­vate schools that serve 17,000 stu­dents lost only 40 stu­dents this year.

But, he said, many of the schools need sig­nif­i­cant and costly up­grades. The arch­dio­cese has iden­ti­fied about $86 mil­lion in im­prove­ments and ren­o­va­tions needed to en­sure its fa­cil­i­ties are com­pet­i­tive with other pri­vate schools.

“This seemed like an op­por­tu­nity to ask a strate­gic ques­tion,” Lori said. “The ques­tion for us is where we should in­vest. ... This is not a de­ci­sion to save money. This is a de­ci­sion to in­vest money.”

The arch­dio­cese shut­tered 13 schools in 2010, in­clud­ing the beloved Car­di­nal Gib­bons High School in the Mor­rell Park

neigh­bor­hood of West Bal­ti­more.

For this round, arch­dioce­san lead­ers have taken steps to ease the tran­si­tion for par­ents and stu­dents. They timed the an­nounce­ment to give fam­i­lies and teach­ers time to pre­pare for the clo­sures and de­cide whether to stay in the Catholic school sys­tem.

School prin­ci­pals an­nounced the school clo­sures to the fac­ulty and sent an email to par­ents at the end of the school day on Wed­nes­day.

The re­ac­tion from alumni and par­ents was swift.

Sonja Denise Tassin was over­whelmed with sad­ness as left St. Thomas Aquinas on Wed­nes­day. She said she is rais­ing two bira­cial chil­dren as part of a same-sex cou­ple, and that the school pro­vided a safe, ac­cept­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

“Our two daugh­ters are adopted. They came to us with prob­lems and is­sues,” Tassin said. She said Sis­ter Jean Marie, one of her daugh­ter’s pre-kinder­garten teach­ers, “an­swered our prayer.”

“She gave her ex­actly what she needed af­ter com­ing out of a dif­fi­cult life,” Tassin said. “She gave her so much love.”

Par­ent John Bul­lock, who de­scribed him­self as a life­long Catholic, was not sur­prised. He had heard about de­clin­ing en­roll­ment and no­ticed the first-grade class was small. He had be­gun look­ing for a new school for his son, who is in sec­ond grade.

“Clearly, there were some is­sues go­ing on there. It has been a slow train com­ing with th­ese clo­sures,” he said.

With all the Catholic schools near his home in South­west Bal­ti­more closed, he said he would have no choice but to send his son to a public school.

But Julie Jester, a 2011 Se­ton Keough grad­u­ate, blamed the de­clin­ing en­roll­ment on the arch­dio­cese af­ter it changed the school’s lead­ers.

“Had it been in­de­pen­dently owned and op­er­ated, Se­ton Keough would’ve thrived as one of the most di­verse Catholic high schools in the state,” she wrote in an email. “But the arch­dio­cese in­ter­vened and cre­ated a death spi­ral for a unique school that so many cher­ished.”

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the arch­dio­cese, said par­ents of stu­dents at schools slated for clo­sure will re­ceive a phone call from an arch­dioce­san of­fi­cial be­tween 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. to­day to dis­cuss the clo­sures.

“We hope the per­sonal outreach con­veys to them how much we care about their fam­i­lies and the ed­u­ca­tion of their chil­dren,” he said.

The arch­dio­cese had com­mis­sioned an 18-month study to de­ter­mine the need for con­sol­i­da­tion and in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments. Ayers Saint Gross, a de­sign firm; DataS­tory, a data anal­y­sis com­pany; and Field­ing Nair In­ter­na­tional, an ar­chi­tec­ture firm spe­cial­iz­ing in schools, worked on the study.

With Bal­ti­more city and county public schools in­vest­ing about $1 bil­lion to ren­o­vate and build new schools over a decade, Catholic school lead­ers felt the need to in­vest in its build­ings in order to re­main com­pet­i­tive.

“If we’re go­ing to be rel­e­vant go­ing for­ward … we needed to do the same thing,” said James Sellinger, the arch­dio­cese’s chan­cel­lor of Catholic schools.

The study rec­om­mended aban­don­ing St. Clement Mary Hof­bauer ele­men­tary and mid­dle school.

“We were told by the ex­perts not to try to fix it,” Caine said. The school would have been too costly to re­pair, re­quir­ing $10 mil­lion in fa­cil­ity and ed­u­ca­tional im­prove­ments.

As a re­sult, St. Clement, which has 247 stu­dents, will merge with St. Michael the Ar­changel School. A St. Clement pro­gram for stu­dents with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties will also move to Over­lea. The two schools will be di­vided into an up­per and lower school, and both prin­ci­pals will re­main lead­ers in the merged school.

Se­ton Keough’s en­roll­ment de­clined by 66 per­cent in the past decade to186 girls this school year. The build­ing was de­signed for 1,000 stu­dents. The school needs about $16 mil­lion in im­prove­ments, such as com­puter and science labs. The Holy An­gels Catholic School, which shares space on the Se­ton Keough cam­pus, will be re­lo­cated when the cam­pus is sold.

John Paul Re­gional School, an ele­men­tary school with 150 stu­dents, had been op­er­at­ing at a loss and los­ing en­roll­ment. At ca­pac­ity, it could hold 265 stu­dents. And St. Thomas Aquinas, also an ele­men­tary school, has 90 stu­dents in a school that once had a stu­dent pop­u­la­tion of dou­ble that size.

Arch­dio­cese lead­ers con­tend that de­mand for their schools is high but that af­ford­abil­ity for fam­i­lies in the re­gion is a bar­rier to ad­mis­sion.

Statewide, Catholic schools have had dif­fi­culty fund­ing their parish schools as en­roll­ments de­clined and schools had to hire non-clergy teach­ers to fill the fac­ulty ranks. The Bal­ti­more Arch­dio­cese pro­vides about $13.5 mil­lion an­nu­ally to sup­port its schools.

Rais­ing tu­ition has not been an op­tion in most of the arch­dio­cese’s schools. Many of the stu­dents are not Catholic and come from low-in­come fam­i­lies. The av­er­age tu­ition is $6,000 for ele­men­tary schools and $13,000 for high schools.

This year, state law­mak­ers ap­proved $5 mil­lion worth of state-funded schol­ar­ships for stu­dents to at­tend pri­vate schools. Most of the funds went to stu­dents at­tend­ing Catholic schools.

Caine said the state rev­enue brought new stu­dents to the sys­tem and sup­ported some of those who were al­ready en­rolled.

The 102 teach­ers at the three schools slated for clo­sure will be able to ap­ply for jobs at other schools in the arch­dio­cese, although ad­min­is­tra­tors an­tic­i­pate that some teach­ers may re­tire. The arch­dio­cese will pro­vide guid­ance to stu­dents and par­ents, and has guar­an­teed that tu­ition will re­main the same next year if they trans­fer to a Catholic school that costs more.

Other in­de­pen­dent Catholic high schools unaf­fil­i­ated with the arch­dio­cese will not be af­fected by the clo­sures. They in­clude Loy­ola Blake­field, the In­sti­tute of Notre Dame, Mercy, Cristo Rey and Notre Dame Prep.

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