Schools to close meet criteria under strategic plan

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 26, 2014

When word spread in mid-January that the Office for Catholic Schools had notified six schools that were to be closed because the archdiocese could no longer afford to support them, it stirred anger, sorrow and a feeling of loss in their communities.

Some of the schools announced plans to fight for their survival.

None of that comes as a surprise to Dominican Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, who visited each school to personally share the news with parents and staff. She compared the closing of a school to a death, and acknowledged that each school community will go through the stages of grief.

“These schools have had a wonderful impact on a lot of lives, and because of that, there is going to be a grieving process,” she said. And if they can raise enough money, and come up with a viable plan to stay open for the next several years, she said, more power to them.

The announcements trickled out the week following Jan. 6, when Santa Maria del Popolo in Mundelein received the news that it would close at the end of the year. The other schools expected to close in June are Our Lady of Victory, 4434 N. Laramie; St. Bernadette, Evergreen Park; St. Florian, 13110 S. Baltimore Ave.; and St. Christopher, Midlothian. The Academy of St. Benedict the African — Stewart Campus closed before Christmas break because of safety issues caused by an unstable wall and failing boilers that the school could not afford to repair.

More than 80 percent of students from the Stewart Campus have transferred to other Catholic schools, primarily the Academy of St. Benedict the African-Laflin Campus and Visitation.

All of the schools that are expected to be closed meet at least some of the criteria discussed in the Office of Catholic Schools strategic plan. At the Steward Campus, it was capital costs that the school could not absorb. In other schools it was falling enrollment or a continued reliance on archdiocesan financing, Sister Mary Paul said.

In a Catholic New World column about archdiocesan finances in March 2013, Cardinal George said the archdiocese would cut the $22 million in subsidies it gave to schools in 2012 by $10 million this year, and by another $10 million in subsequent years.

Not giving up
Jennifer Hodge, principal at Our Lady of Victory, said she understands the need for the archdiocese to cut spending. But she thought her school, which is mounting a turnaround, would have a little more time.

The school, which had 91 students when Hodge was hired in the summer of 2012, now has 171, with one student registered after the announcement that the school would close, and the school’s announcement that it would find a way to stay open. That would mean raising an extra $400,000 each year for the next three years.

Of its students, 65 are in preschool, which bodes well for the school’s future enrollment, Hodge said, and it just started a new focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). With that new focus, Hodge hoped to be able to attract grant support.

The weekend before the deadline, the school was about halfway there, Hodge reported.

“We’re not giving up,” she said.

Strengthening schools
Sister Mary Paul said she understands and appreciates the efforts the schools are making to stay open, but said she cannot hold out false hope for them.

“It may be that we have awakened a sleeping giant,” she said. “More power to them. But we are not going to be flexible on them coming off the books.”

The goal of the strategic plan for Catholic schools is to make Catholic schools strong and accessible to everyone, and that will only happen if the office can focus its limited resources on the strongest schools, she said.

“It’s in line with fiscal reality, so that all the schools can be stronger,” Sister Mary Paul said. “But it’s tough.”

It’s also important for communities to be responsible for supporting their own schools, as they did when they built the schools in the first place.

“The Catholic community built these schools,” she said. “The more we can say these are our schools, the better off we are going to be. This has got to be the rallying cry of a community in love with God and its children.”

In the meantime, the Office of Catholic schools timed its announcements to come a few weeks before Catholic Schools Week, starting Jan, 26. The idea was to allow them to celebrate their own last years and allow families to visit other Catholic school open houses or even take days to shadow other students.

“We want them to be well-settled in their other schools,” Sister Mary Paul said. Families that enroll their children in other Catholic schools will receive a $1,000 discount on the first year’s tuition, with details to be worked out between the Office of Catholic Schools and the receiving schools.

At the end, Sister Mary Paul said, she hopes parents and children will come to acceptance and find new schools and “know that it’s the best place for them to be.”

To view the strategic plan, visit


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