Tuesday marked the first day of school at Our Lady of Victory in Portage Park, the annual ritual taking on added significance this year.
The youngest kids clung to their parents, and the older ones broke free to greet old friends and make new ones. Not a tear was observed to fall from a child’s eye, but I can’t vouch for some of the parents who hurried away.
Mostly there were smiles all around, which wasn’t the case just eight months ago when this Catholic elementary school was slated for closing by the Archdiocese of Chicago because of shaky finances.
Thanks to this Northwest Side neighborhood pulling together, Principal Jennifer Hodge was able to confidently welcome her bright-eyed students back to a brighter future.
And she greeted most of them by name.
“It was awesome to see everybody back—and new faces,” said Hodge, one of those dynamo principals who make all the difference.
More than $900,000 in pledges and donations have been received since January, and comedian Tom Dreesen is scheduled to perform in a fund-raising event at the school on Sept. 28.
Enrollment has ticked up slightly to 185 students, with additional students expected to sign up in the next several weeks as more parents come to the realization the new school year is already at hand, Hodge said.
The goal is to get back to 200 students this year, still just a fraction of the 1,200 who once walked it halls, but enough to survive while building for the future.
For the first time in more than a decade, Our Lady of Victory has two kindergarten classes this year, and the school’s popular pre-school program remains its best recruiting tool.
“We’re building from the bottom,” Hodge said.
So you’re going to be OK, I said to Mary Beth Frystak, the school’s director of religious education and pastoral associate, meaning it half as a statement, half as a question. Frystak had vowed last winter to do what it takes to keep the school open.