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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Schools contest closing orders in Chicago


Hope dies hard for the employees, students and parents of the 23 Catholic elementary schools slated for closure in the Chicago archdiocese. “I believe every Catholic child should have a right to a Catholic education,” said Dominican Sr. Joyce Montgomery, principal of St. John Berchmans, one of the schools on the list. “The opportunity shouldn’t be determined by income or ethnic background.”

The closings, scheduled for the end of the current school year, will eliminate 11 percent of the archdiocese’s 210 elementary schools and affect more than 4,500 students. The vast majority of the schools are in Hispanic and black neighborhoods. “I would prefer never to close any schools,” said Cardinal Francis George at the announcement Feb. 24. Unfortunately, he added, it is impossible to keep all open, especially in areas with few Catholic families. George indicated he felt special pain about one school on the list, Epiphany, in a strongly Mexican community, because his own parents attended the school many years ago. The pain, he said, would “have to be placed in the context of the responsibility to go forward.”

The affected schools are among more than 100 that were notified last fall that they were on a “watch list” either because of enrollments under 200 students, the deteriorating condition of the buildings, a substantial debt owed to the archdiocese, or some combination of the above factors. Some schools made great effort to dodge the bullet and succeeded. The 23 were not so fortunate. Fewer than 12 of these are appealing the ruling and believe they can make a convincing case for survival.

Montgomery said a survey indicated virtually all of St. John Berchmans parents, 75 percent of whom are Hispanic, would be willing to pay increased tuition in an effort to defray the school’s accumulated $240,000 debt. The school has 240 students, well above the archdiocese’s cutoff line and larger than some schools in the area that were not ordered closed. The pastor has a meeting scheduled with school office officials. “I hope they will give us a chance,” said Montgomery.

At Epiphany, also predominantly Hispanic, principal Immaculate Heart Sr. Elizabeth Pardo said that she, the pastor and a contingent of parents had already made a strong appeal to reverse the decision. The building is in good shape, she said, and there is no outstanding debt, though the enrollment of 167 students is the major problem. In 2003 Epiphany was the archdiocese’s sole recipient of the excellence in teaching award for raising its students’ test scores. Enrollment is expected to rise next year, said Pardo, and a variety of donors have pledged to subsidize costs. “This school needs to stay open,” said Pardo. “It’s turning out wonderful people who are making a difference in the world.”

Hope is alive too at the predominantly black St. Helena of the Cross on Chicago’s far south side. Dominican Sr. Jeannine Butler, who has been principal there for 22 years, said everyone was convinced a $248,000 renovation program had solved archdiocesan concerns about the building. The school has 254 students and a waiting list for next year. “So the closure order came as a nightmare to all of us,” said Butler. “We think it’s a mistake and it will be rectified.”

Jim Dwyer, the archdiocesan director of media relations, told NCR there is a possibility that some of the schools will be able to make a case to stay open, “but we don’t want to give people too much hope. We understand how emotional this can be for everyone involved.”

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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