St. Dominic Savio students sold on partnership with Holy Cross Academy

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Only two hours into his shadowing expedition, Aaron Sitner was pretty much sold on the new partnership between his parish school at St. Dominic Savio in Affton and Holy Cross Academy.

A sixth-grader this year, Sitner will be a seventh-grader next year at Holy Cross middle school on the Annunciation Parish campus in Webster Groves. He and St. Dominic Savio classmates shadowed Holy Cross sixth-graders for the day Jan. 26.

"I like it so far," said Sitner, who already had attended math and English classes with his host. He specifically liked the many elective courses offered at the middle school as well as the fact that it has "a gym."

St. Dominic Savio doesn't have a gym, so the gymnasium on the Annunciation campus is a major drawing card.

"It would have been great having a video of them at open house," said Holy Cross president Amie Koenen, demonstrating the visitors' look of 'OMG' wonderment. "We had to show the gym first to get it out of the way; they're all excited about it."

The new students are excited about more than just that, however. For instance, the electives, including robotics, which is new this year, and four STEM classes, up from one last year. There's also theater, band, multi-media, simple machines, fencing and more. With a traditional PreK-8 format, St. Dominic Savio isn't in position to offer such electives.

Then, there's the religious aspect. Before shadowing, St. Dominic students attended the middle-school's weekly Mass, which features a choir 42 strong. St. Dominic sixth-grader Caitlyn Borst described the Mass as "great ... spectacular."

"I came to open house and just loved it," she said. "About them merging, I feel really great."

St. Dominic started the discernment process in August as part of its parish viability study, undertaken at parishes throughout the archdiocese at the behest of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson.

"We took that real seriously and this is the evidence of it," said pastor Father Paul Rothschild, who emphasized education was but "one element of a larger discernment process" though "a high value. ... One of our goals was to continue to provide quality Catholic education. We discerned that the best way forward was to enter into a partnership with Holy Cross.

"We think the days of the stand-alone parish school that tries to provide everything is going away, and that collaboration between parishes is the path to the future."

St. Dominic Savio explored several options before even approaching Holy Cross about a partnership. A school committee of parishioners studied retaining the PreK-8 format or partnering with other parishes to build a Holy Cross-like system.

Father Rothschild described the process as "extensive meetings, conversation and painful dialogue," but one thing everyone wanted "was an educational presence on our campus."

For Koenen, St. Dominic's goal of quality Catholic education was familiar. In forming Holy Cross, now in its fourth year, founding parishes Annunciation, St. Michael the Archangel in Shrewsbury and Our Lady of Providence in Crestwood had the same goal for their children. So did Seven Holy Founders, which joined Holy Cross late in formation.

"Every time we had a meeting with them, someone would say, "This is a good fit,'" Koenen said. "The work they were doing, we could all see us five or six years ago."

St. Dominic Savio enters the partnership with a healthy enrollment of about 260.

"St. Dominic Savio came to us before their numbers declined, before they had to cut anything and people were worn out from fundraising," Koenen said. "They're still healthy; they're a very good partner for that reason. They're being proactive."

However, St. Dominic is something of a regional school, drawing from about 20 zip codes. Though enrollment numbers are good, the one parish supports multiple parishes through the school, a financial model that is difficult if not impossible to maintain in the long-term. Financial losses would mount.

"We knew this could not continue," said Michael Hagerty, president of the St. Dominic financial board. "We looked at the numbers long term and that really got us to, 'We have got to find a different way.'"

Hagerty lauded Father Rothschild for being "the voice" to help find that way. He also had high praise for the unselfish work of committee members, who were mainly student parents such as himself.

"I never got the sense they were concerned about their own children," he said. "This was always about how to make Catholic education work in our area and how to build on the good things and ministries we have at St. Dominic. It's a vigorous, vibrant environment, and we want to keep educating children in the faith." 

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