Saturday, April 22, 2006

Archdiocese Spares 6 Schools, but Decides That 9 Will Close

New York Times

N.Y. / Region

Archdiocese Spares 6 Schools, but Decides That 9 Will Close
Published: April 22, 2006

Mary George, the principal of Our Lady of Sorrows in Manhattan, broke down and cried at her home when she got the news: her school had been spared.
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Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Sister Nora McArt, a teacher at St. Martin of Tours in the Bronx, with Ricardo Tapia, a parent who helped in a letter-writing campaign. The school, among those that had been recommended for closing, will stay open.

Sister Nora McArt, a teacher for 37 years at St. Martin of Tours in the Bronx, leapt for joy after getting a call on her cellphone. "It was just hard to believe," she said, "after all that we've been through."

Last month, Roman Catholic officials with the Archdiocese of New York announced recommendations for a major overhaul of parishes and schools in the metropolitan New York region. In all, 31 parishes were proposed for closing, along with 14 schools; two more sets of schools were recommended for potential mergers.

But after listening to appeals over the past few weeks from all but one school on the list, archdiocesan officials announced yesterday that only nine schools would close � eight on the original closing list and one that was initially recommended to merge with another school. That meant parents, teachers and principals at six schools � a higher number than many had expected � found themselves celebrating a new lease on life yesterday.

"We are experiencing the resurrection for which we and so many have prayed and worked so hard," Sister Nora said.

Archdiocesan officials had emphasized early on that their recommendations were just that, merely recommendations, and that nothing had been made final. They have been giving both parish and school officials the opportunity to appeal their cases, advising them to come prepared not just with emotional pleas but with hard facts.

Officials for the archdiocese, which covers parishes and schools from Staten Island in the south to the Catskills in the north, have been hurrying over the last few weeks to make final decisions on the school closings because teacher contracts have to be renewed for next year. No timetable has been set for the parishes.

Catholic schools were on Easter break yesterday, so the news � both positive and negative � spread in telephone chains and e-mail messages.

At St. Mary Star of the Sea on City Island in the Bronx, the school's principal, Jane Dennehy, announced the good news on the school's answering machine: "We have received word today that we will remain open," she said. "We're all set to go, with a long, happy future ahead of us."

The news was bad, however, for Our Lady of Solace in the Van Nest neighborhood in the Bronx, where the television personality Regis Philbin went to school. The Rev. John Knapp, the parish pastor, said he had been holding out hope after what he thought was a positive meeting with archdiocesan officials. "It's very painful," he said. "It's like knowing that a loved one is dying.

You think you know how you're going to react, but you realize you're never prepared for it."

The sparing of a sizable number of schools on the list raised questions among some people about whether archdiocesan officials could have handled the process better, meeting with teachers, parents and principals from the various schools before making any closing recommendations.

"They should have done more research," said Audrey Cabbell, a teacher and parent at St. Mary Star of the Sea.
The recommendations caused panic in many school communities, setting off a flurry of rallies and prayer vigils, as well as angry accusations about the archdiocese's motives.

At St. Martin of Tours, in the East Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx, alumni rallied to support the school, members of the community dashed off letters to the archdiocese and parents gathered signatures for a petition to keep the school open.

At other places, the rallies and other efforts to drum up support proved to be to no avail.
"Angry is not the word," said Ina Allick, whose two sons attend Resurrection School in Upper Manhattan. "Outraged is more like it."

Ms. Allick helped organize a rally for parents and had been trying to get them to register for next year to prop up the school's enrollment. The school had signed up 85 students, she said, far more than what it had at this time last year, putting it on track to grow from its current size of 130 students.

"I feel we were railroaded," she said.

All the schools on the final closing list, as well as those that were spared, have seen their enrollments drop precipitously over the last few years, in most cases dipping well below 200, according to archdiocesan statistics.

But Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the schools that were saved presented enough information in their appeals to convince officials that the dwindling enrollment figures could be reversed.

"Each school was different, but the overriding factor in each case was they presented sufficient information for us to expect their enrollment not only to stabilize but also to increase," he said. "The other schools, although they were very impassioned about their school, there just was not enough there for us to say this school deserves that extra chance to turn their situation around."
He added that archdiocesan officials would keep a close eye on the six schools that were spared this time around to "make sure what we now believe will happen actually does happen."

The officials began calling principals and pastors, many of whom had been waiting anxiously all week for word, early yesterday morning.

Mrs. George, of Our Lady of Sorrows on Manhattan's Lower East Side, said she began to weep as soon as she realized that her school was safe. Then she got off the phone and went into the bathroom and cried some more. She had been praying desperately over the last few weeks to St. Anne, her late mother's namesake.

"I'm going to church on Sunday," she said. "I'm going to light a candle. My mother came through."
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