Formation of new corporate model school recommended at St. Joan of Arc

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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The Archdiocesan School Oversight Committee is recommending the creation of a new corporate model school at the site of St. Joan of Arc Parish in south St. Louis. Under the model, the archdiocese partners with parishes and schools on decisions regarding governance, leadership, curriculum, programs and personnel.

If approved, the new kindergarten to eighth-grade school would start in the 2017-18 school year and serve students from three formerly parish-run schools in south St. Louis — St. Joan of Arc, Our Lady of Sorrows and St. James the Greater.

The recommendation was developed at the request of the parishes' pastors, who sought assistance in developing a plan. It was presented Oct. 30 at separate meetings for teachers, parish leaders and for parents and parishioners at all three parishes. The recommendation and input from parents and parishioners will be presented to the archdiocesan Board of Catholic Education and to Archbishop Robert J. Carlson for a final decision.

Also recommended is the creation of a position in the Catholic Education Office responsible for all of the elementary schools in the South City Deanery, working with the corporate school, parish elementary schools and archdiocesan-operated schools. In addition, steps would ensure that all educational and religious education programs are of similar quality in schools of the South City Deanery. The archdiocese would provide funds to assist these schools to enhance programs and provide direction in maintaining and placing quality leaders in the schools.

Changes

The St. Joan of Arc site was chosen because of its location and visibility. "We are trying to put schools in the locations to best serve families for now and for the future," said Mike Duffy, a member of the School Oversight Committee.

Under the plan for a "renaissance in education," the archdiocese will partner with parishes and schools as a strong stakeholder to make sure the schools are available, affordable and in the right locations.

Maureen DePriest, associate superintendent for elementary school administration, said earlier in announcing the broader plan that "we are really stressing similar quality. One of the things that has been a detriment to Catholic education is the competition between schools."

The Catholic population has dropped by as much as 50 percent in some city neighborhoods. Families are having fewer children than they did 40 or 50 years ago. Fewer Catholics send their children to Catholic schools.

After meetings at St. James the Greater and Our Lady of Sorrows parishes Oct. 30 to introduce the plan, some parishioners and school parents discussed the process and questioned the plan's effectiveness but didn't dispute the demographic and financial conditions that led to it.

Parishioners and parents at the meetings Oct. 30 were asked to fill out a form answering three questions and then submit those answers to the oversight committee. The questions were: What are the strengths of the plan? What concerns do you have about the plan? And, what additional questions or comments would you like to raise?

Challenges

Maureen DePriest, associate superintendent for elementary school administration, told the parishioners and parents that the recommendation calls for a viable, long-term situation to grow and maintain Catholic education. Instead of providing emergency funding to schools, "we want to invest in the schools to be the best they can be," DePriest said.

At St. James Church, the meeting led by the Archdiocesan School Oversight Committee began with parish pastor Father Chris Dunlap explaining that the school year started with 102 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with more than 50 percent of students living outside the school boundaries. The enrollment decreased 30 percent in just five years.

The parish, even with substantial fundraising and cost-cutting, dipped into its savings and relied on subsidies from the archdiocese. Emergency funding was needed this school year to balance the budget.

At Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Father Peter Blake addressed the changes affecting his parish school. Enrollment increased slightly after the closing of two adjacent southside parish schools, Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. John the Baptist, three years ago. But with just 139 students, the parish has had to use its savings to operate the school.

"Those savings are gone," Father Blake said, noting that the school is relying on emergency funds from the archdiocese.

St. Joan of Arc had more than 200 students five years ago and now has 161. Its savings will be depleted at the end of the school year, said parish pastor Father Craig Holway.

Father Blake cited previous planning efforts the last 10 years by the South City Collaborative that included focus groups, town hall meetings and surveys. The efforts, however, failed to come up with a plan that parishes could accept. Despite enhanced marketing and student recruitment efforts, "we still face these challenges," he said.

Mickey Crowe is the school secretary at St. James, where she has worked for 33 years. She is a 1945 graduate of the school. "It makes me very sad," she said of the possible closing of the school, which she remembers being crowded years ago with 800 students. "I'm wondering what will happen to the families," Crowe said.

She doesn't want to see the students attend one of the charter schools in the city instead of a Catholic school. Rene Miller, a member of the St. James School Board who has a fifth-grader at the school, cited the historic ties it has to the community. St. James School opened under the direction of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, N.Y., in 1902.

"We love our school," said Miller, whose husband is among its graduates.

At Our Lady of Sorrows, Mary Kikag said a positive result would be a fuller school with less costs per student-teacher ratio. She has concerns about the impact of the school closing on the neighborhood and about a use for the school building.

Our Lady of Sorrows School opened in 1908, a year after the parish founding, and was staffed by two School Sisters of Notre Dame. In the 1960s and '70s the school had an enrollment nearing 1,000 children. At one point, even the former library's closet was used as a classroom with room for 15 students and their teacher. The auditorium was set up with dividing walls to accommodate classes.

Both St. James and Our Lady of Sorrows have an extensive list of activities and organizations. Our Lady of Sorrows parishioners, for example, provide meals for homeless people through St. Louis Winter Outreach. St. James parishioners are doing a group Year of Mercy pilgrimage.

Choices

Msgr. Mark S. Rivituso, vicar general of the archdiocese, oversees the School Oversight Committee, established by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson to assist deaneries and parishes in sustaining Catholic education in the archdiocese to foster the faith of students and inspire them to participate in the life and mission of the Church.

DePriest said the pastors have been involved in the planning. "We collectively, the pastors and those of us from the archdiocese, are building on a 200-year tradition of faith formation and education for our children. Education is constantly on a continuum of change, and we are changing with it. We are honoring our past and advancing our mission for a stronger future."

Planning efforts have sought to address challenges in St. Louis since as long ago as 2006. Included was the City Catholic Collaborative and South City Planning Committee, each focused on sustaining quality Catholic education for the long term.

Funding for the corporate school comes from parish investment; archdiocesan investment through the Archdiocesan Catholic Appeal and Today and Tomorrow and Roman Catholic Foundation scholarships; and from tuition.

The Archdiocesan School Oversight Committee is involved in planning in other deaneries of the archdiocese as well. 

>> Numbers

Twenty years ago, Our Lady of Sorrows School had 541 students. It now has 139. St. James had 199 and now has 102. St. Joan of Arc had 465 and now has 161. Our Lady Of Sorrows served 4,174 Catholics in 1996 and now has 2,183 in the parish, with a decrease in baptisms from 68 annually to 37. St. Joan of Arc has decreased from 3,460 Catholics to 2,335 and baptisms have gone down from 69 to 30. St, James has remained steady, with a population loss from 1,700 to 1,630 and baptisms increasing slightly from 25 to 28. But St. James School has a kindergarten to eighth-grade retention rate of 44 percent, one of the lowest in the archdiocese. 

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