Today will be a painful day for some, but a new beginning for others, as the Diocese of Buffalo announced the closing of 10 area Catholic elementary schools, restructuring the remaining buildings into community-based schools.
"When you think of the students, families, faculty staff, parishioners, alumni and supporters of these schools, you realize how gut-wrenching this day is for them," said Bishop Richard J. Malone when making the announcement. "But planned, inevitable change is the way to go. We are making timely and pro-active decisions that will allow our schools to get better and stronger, using our resources in the most prudent way."
The announcement is part of the diocesan "Faith in Tomorrow" campaign that is tasked with studying the demographics and finances of Catholic education since its inception in 2011. The new strategy for area Catholic schools is to eliminate overlapping recruitment, instead creating a community elementary school that is similar to the model of the Notre Dame Academy in South Buffalo, which combined three neighborhood parish schools when it opened in 2006.
"Throughout the entire planning process, the issue of Catholic identity was paramount," said Carol Kostyniak, secretary of Catholic Education. "Parents who entrust their children to Catholic schools expect that their children will receive a quality Catholic education imbued with Gospel values of faith, justice and charity. This revitalization process has resulted in a renewed dedication of clergy, the enhanced sense of partnership between pastors and principals, and the strengthening of Catholic identity and the Catholic culture of our schools."
The diocese announced the closing of the following list of schools at the end of the current academic year:
Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School, Elma (102 students, 18 faculty and staff)
Fourteen Holy Helpers School, West Seneca (136 students, 20 faculty and staff)
Our Lady of Pompeii School, Lancaster (70 students, 14 faculty and staff)
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, Orchard Park (135 students, 24 faculty and staff)
St. Bernadette School, Orchard Park (148 students, 22 faculty and staff)
St. Francis of Assisi School, Tonawanda (152 students, 19 faculty and staff)
St. Joseph School, Gowanda (42 students, 16 faculty and staff)
St. Leo the Great School, Amherst (99 students, 24 faculty and staff)
St. Mary of the Lake School, Hamburg (122 students, 23 faculty and staff)
St. Vincent de Paul School, Spring Brook (148 students, 15 faculty and staff)
Diocesan administrators encouraged parents of the closed schools to seek out enrollment in nearby Catholic schools and check for upcoming open houses through the Catholic Education website.
While making the announcement, the bishop called for state leaders to pass the Education Investment Tax Credit Bill, which would provide tax credits to people or companies making donations to public schools and private scholarships, such as the BISON Fund. Bishop Malone noted the diocese is talking with the BISON Fund to increase scholarships and tuition assistance to needy students, especially for those in Buffalo City Schools.
"The possible infusion of new students into our schools will allow us to keep open all Catholic elementary schools in Buffalo, providing even more children the chance to take advantage of the unparalleled education that is offered in our schools," the bishop said.
Kostyniak and Catholic Schools Superintendent Sister Carol Cimino, SSJ, met with the Western New York Catholic editorial board last week to discuss the situation. Kostyniak noted the process began when the diocese formed a Catholic Schools Advisory Council prior to the diocese hiring Sister Carol last year.
"The advisory council has really taken the lead in looking at our Catholic schools and understand where we are," Kostyniak said. "We really know that we have to be more cost-effective in order to strengthen our programs, and that's the bottom line."
Members of the council examined several elements of the diocese, including demographic and financial projections of area schools. It was quickly discovered the size of families was shrinking in Western New York, and will likely continue to do so.
"The average family size across the nation is 1.8," Kostyniak said. "The family size is decreasing. Every district is faced with declining enrollment. How do we as a region account for it? For Catholic Schools, we have to be better stewards."
"The number one reason why parents chose a Catholic school is because of the excellence of its program," Sister Carol said. "The initiative that we're taking is to increase the rigor of our schools. We're doing a really, really good job right now. Ninety-nine percent graduation rate out of our high schools; you can't quibble with that. However, we believe that if resources used on bricks and mortar to taking them to programs, this will make Catholic schools more attractive to parents."
To help modernize Catholic schools, they will adopt a STREAM initiative, which stands for science, technology, religion, engineering, arts and math. It is similar to a STEM program employed by some public schools, but administrators trumpeted the inclusion of art and religion in their system. The diocese will also hire a coordinator to handle the STREAM initiative.
"The Catholic Church saved art in the dark ages, and I believe we (teach art) particularly well," Sister Carol said. "The context in which STREAM will be taught will be the religious context."
Catholic schools will also increase the role of the laity in the leadership of Catholic elementary schools by turning former parish advisory councils into board of limited jurisdiction that will handle hiring and appraisals of school administrators, as well as budget and policy matters.
"More responsibility will be given to boards composed of laity," Sister Carol said. "Lay people will be much more involved in the governance of those schools. There is now a trend in the Diocese of Buffalo toward looking at lay (people) as pastoral administrators. We're simply following that trend."
Parents of Catholic school children will also be encouraged to become more involved in the culture of the school. Sister Carol has formed a Buffalo Diocesan Federation of Home-School Association to help coordinate the efforts of the various parent groups at the school level.
"We want to focus the power of parents," she said. "We want to focus on their efforts and their energies, not only on supporting their school because we know word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool for our schools, but for legislative action like the (Education Investment Tax Credit Bill)."
While today's announcement is likely to be a painful one for many children, parents and staff, diocesan administrators believe it is the right one to continue operating Catholic schools in the future.
"This is not about closing buildings, it's about strengthening programs," Kostyniak said.