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Archdiocese of Chicago will close nine schools

The Archdiocese of Chicago will close nine schools as part of a restructuring and consolidation plan to cut costs amid continuing low enrollment.

The restructuring, announced Wednesday, affects about 1,280 elementary students, and 229 employees, including 107 full-time teachers, the archdiocese said.

The plan is designed to ensure that the archdiocese can “continue to offer a quality, enriched education and lifelong Catholic identity training for as many families and students as possible now and for generations to come,” Thomas McGrath, chief operating officer for Catholic Schools, said in a Chicago Sun-Times interview.

The affected schools don’t make the grade established under the Archdiocese of Chicago Board of Catholic Schools 2013-2016 Strategic Plan for Schools. The plan established benchmarks to assess a school’s potential for closure or reconfiguration that included total enrollment lower than 225 students, or archdiocese aid of more than $300,000 annually or greater than $1,000 per student.

McGrath said affected schools had an average enrollment of about 125 students.

The strategic plan was in response to rising operating aid for schools that reached more than $23 million in fiscal 2012. While that dropped to $18 million in fiscal 2014,

“This level is higher than the Archdiocese can afford and still remain financially healthy and has contributed to unsustainable operating deficits in the Archdiocesan budget,” Cardinal Francis George wrote in the archdiocese publication Catholic New World, released Wednesday.

“…We remain as committed as ever to Catholic education, and we believe a more appropriately sized network will enable us to strengthen our system and serve our children more effectively.”

It is yet to be determined if layoffs will be necessary due to the restructuring, according to McGrath, who noted staff will be encouraged to apply for positions at other schools and said the number of people affected is below the average open number of teaching positions year-over-year.

Schools closing at the end of June 2015 are:

— St. Peter, 8140 Niles Center Rd., Skokie

— St. Hyacinth, 3640 W. Wolfram St., Chicago

— St. Ladislaus, 3330 N. Lockwood Ave., Chicago

— St. Turibius, 4120 W. 57th St., Chicago

— St. Rene Goupil, 6340 S. New England Ave., Chicago

— St. Lawrence O’Toole, 4101 S. Lawrence Ave., Matteson

As of July 2015, St. Dorothy School and St. Columbanus School on Chicago’s South Side will be consolidated into a new school, Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy, which will operate at the St. Columbanus site at 7120 S. Calumet Ave. The St. Dorothy site at 7740 S. Eberhart Ave. will close.

In Lake County, St. James School will be merged into Holy Cross School, and in Des Plaines, Our Lady of Destiny School will be merged into St. Zachary School. The St. James and Our Lady of Destiny sites will close.

The archdiocese said the Nativity Early Childhood Center at 2740 W. 68th St. in Chicago will continue to serve the Marquette Park neighborhood with the potential partnership of Catholic Charities.

Beginning in the fall of 2015, St. Agatha Catholic Academy at 3151 W. Douglas Blvd. in Chicago, which serves pre-K through eighth grade now, will become pre-K only, also with a potential partnership with Catholic charities.

Additional programs may be provided to the North Lawndale community and will be released in coming weeks, the archdiocese said.

George noted too many schools suffer from low enrollment in many cases due to the inability of families to afford Catholic tuition. Many families have household incomes of $40,000 or less, while the cost of education at a Catholic elementary school averages about $4,500 per student, he stated.

The archdiocese has a capital campaign underway to raise a $150 million endowment fund for scholarships of which more than $80 millions has been contributed or pledged, according to George.

Students didn’t rush, but rather trickled out of St. Hyacinth School as class let out Wednesday. Several parents said the writing had been on the wall: enrollment is down, and many kids didn’t return after last year.

“With the economy, people can’t afford it,” said Angeles Reyna, whose 12-year-old honor student, Albert Martinez, has attended St. Hyacinth since preschool.

“To pull him out of the school he’s known all his life and to start all over again in another school is strange and kind of scary for him,” said Reyna, 45. “Pretty much all his friends and classmates are from pre-K.”

Reyna and Albert’s father both attended parochial schools as children and wanted the same for their son, who is now in 7th grade.

“We sort of expected this might happen, but not this soon,” Albert said.

The news saddened Chris Mendoza, who has three boys and one girl attending the school.

“It’s disheartening, I’m not going to lie — not only for myself and my children, but for the rest of the parents and the staff and faculty,” he said.

He enrolled his kids in parochial school because he wants to raise them with Catholic values. But he chose St. Hyacinth because of the “wonderful, wonderful educators.”

“The little ones, they don’t get it yet. But the older kids caught on that something was going on,” said Mendoza, who received a notice this afternoon that the school would close.

“The first thing my daughter said is ‘what about my friends?’ They’ve gone to school with these other kids for years,” Mendoza said. That’s going to force parents at the school to make some difficult decisions if they want to keep their kids together, he said.

Katherine Patino, whose daughter is in kindergarten at the school, said St. Hyacinth is a better school than the Chicago Public School’s elementary near her Montclare home. On top of that, the class size is small and it’s on her way to work as a medical assistant, the 28-year-old Patino said.

“The tuition here is not as bad as at other Catholic schools. It was something I could afford,” Patino said.

That’s something she will have to take stock of when deciding if her daughter will stay with Catholic schools, or transfer to a public school.

“It’s hard to find a school that can teach and spend time with your kids and have time for the parents at the same time.”

Several miles to the west, parishioners at Saint Ladislaus Catholic School also weren’t shocked by the news their school was on the list.

“Twenty years ago, the school was full, the church was full,” said Casimir Piegot, a parishioner at the church. But over the last decade that has changed. “Last year’s enrollment was so down so much, I’m surprised they were open this year.”

Nearby schools with open seats have been identified for all affected families, and transition plans are underway, the archdiocese said.

“We know it’s a grieving process now,” Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, OP, superintendent of Catholic Schools, said as her message to affected families. “We feel with you …We will do everything we can to see that you have a home in another Catholic school.”

The archdiocese school system currently educates more than 82,000 Chicago-area children in 240 elementary and high schools and is the largest private school system in the U.S. But that’s down dramatically from 365,000 students at 524 schools in 1965. Since 2000, enrollment has fallen 36 percent, and the archdiocese has closed more than 70 schools.

“Nobody ever wants to see schools close, but in order to maintain operational vitality of other schools, this may be the step they need to take,” said Michael Boyle, assistant director of the Greeley Center for Catholic Education at Loyola University Chicago.

Archbishop Blase Cupich, who will succeed the retiring George on Nov. 18, has been made aware of the restructuring and the decision-making process, George said.

Contributing: Kate Grossman