Saturday, March 28, 2009

For Two Brooklyn Catholic Schools, Life After Salvation

by Heather J. Chin
NY City News Service
March 26, 2009

Sunset Park – Three teachers, three parents and two parish (church) members gathered at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School to discuss how to increase enrollment by focusing on the school’s neighborhood ties. They are part of the school’s newly formed marketing committee, created two months after everyone thought the school would close and only one month after they began counting their blessings.

After the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn – the fifth most populous in the United States – announced the fate of 22 Catholic elementary schools on February 12th, students, parents and staff at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School and Our Lady of Angels School felt relief, tempered with cautious optimism. With eight schools set to close and others merging, the two schools in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge had escaped the worst. But with enrollment and private school cost affected by the economy, they need some change to prove they can also grow.

“One thing we’re doing is we will continue the after school program, enriching it for a more academic-oriented focus,” explained Theresa Cassidy, a member of the marketing committee who has taught pre-K and kindergarten classes at Our Lady of Perpetual Help for the past 24 years and whose son and relatives have attended the school. “It’s [been] more that parents know their children are somewhere safe, but now we will offer a little more.”

Fiscal strength and steady enrollment are two of the main benchmarks required of the schools. Currently, both schools are part of their respective parishes, receiving some financial and curricular support from church leaders. In September, OLA will become Holy Angels Academy, an independent Catholic academy with four diocese Members in charge of the faith-based curriculum and an independent Board of Directors overseeing strategy and business operations.

“We’re really positive about it, really excited,” said Stephanie Sanadria, a mother of a __-grader and treasurer of Homeschool, now called the Parent’s Association, at what will become Holy Angels Academy. “We’re looking forward to [the two-tiered governance model]. We’ll be the first in Bay Ridge… We think we’ll be in the forefront of this.”

OLPH, meanwhile, will remain a parochial school and will have to improve both recruitment and fundraising efforts, sending a regular report on their progress to the diocese.

“Through marketing and grants, we’re hoping to attain more financial opportunities for the school,” said Anne Stefano, OLPH’s principal, noting that enrollment is “average” with 262 pre-K to 8th grade students, and the goal for the next five years being to raise that total about 25 percent.

A new nursery program has been established so more children are on track to eventually become students. The school day will also get longer, starting at 7:30 a.m. and end, after the after-school program described by Cassidy, at 6 p.m.. And alumni volunteers and students from the sixth to eighth grades will continue to assist with mentoring and teacher-help in the after-school program. The point: to further embrace children and families into a larger, more comprehensive community, doing more than just get the school and church to grow.

The growing Hispanic and Asian communities will also be courted. This will be done through both word of mouth and a focus on religious education students at the Ming Wong school, the Saturday school that rents space at OLPH. With a 106-year history, OLPH has educated generations of students who would bring their kids and grandkids. Not enough years have passed for minority students to do the same thing, but in that tradition, they attract younger siblings and relatives.

Or you bring yourself back, as eighteen-year-old Joshua Deliz is doing two days a week this Spring. A senior at nearby Xaverian High School and a graduate of OLPH, he returned as a volunteer to help his former kindergarten teacher, Ms. Cassidy. Asked what made the school so special, he noted his attachment to it and the individualized attention students get. He also cited the staff’s longevity – he estimated that his younger sister currently has around 80 percent of the same teachers he did.”

The advantages held by OLPH, OLA and the handful of other schools in Brooklyn and Queens that were “saved,” compared to those that closed, were that “they had the capitalization to devise a plan” that had promising strong financial and community resources, according to Father Kieran Harrington, the Communications Director at the Diocese of Brooklyn. Some closing schools, he noted, were running over $400,000 in deficits and were structurally unable to survive.

Whatever their logistical advantages, OLPH and OLA’s most valuable asset is the devotion of their communities, stretching from current students and families to alumni and day-to-day church parishioners. So despite both himself and his wife working full-time, Bay Ridge parent, Matt Cassamassino, said they “definitely help out when [they] can.”

“There was a petition online, there was a Facebook group – it was about getting the neighbors to show support,” said Cassamassino, whose daughters attend OLA’s first grade and pre-K classes. “People who weren’t connected to the school anymore but were still connected with the parish. … Over 800 people signed the petition.”

When Sunset Park resident Patricia Delle Cave, whose three daughters, all of whom are either current or upcoming students, found out about the threat of closure while picking up her daughter, Meaghan, from kindergarten at OLPH in January, she immediately wrote to and called the bishop’s office. Her daughters were upset, too.

“When [Meaghan] found out, her heart was broken. She understood. She cried,” Delle Cave said. “Olivia, my three-year-old, was upset. She had her heart set on coming here.”

The strong bond even brought families out to their home away from home for private celebrations. Delle Cave brought her entire family to OLPH’s Little Doctors Blood Drive on February 15 – her wedding anniversary – three days after the school’s good news came. Having been planned during the period of uncertainty, the big event became a magnet for the joy and relief felt by the school community.

“When Olivia heard that the school wasn’t going to close, she said ‘Good. Now I don’t have to karate chop someone!”

It’s this kind of playful and devoted dedication that Cassidy, the pre-K teacher, believes makes schools like OLPH and OLA special and more than just a building and classes. Delle Cave agrees.

“Anything they need,” she said, “I will come running.”

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