A school that has been a fixture in the Southtowns Catholic community will have a boost in enrollment for the 2014-15 academic year. Queen of Heaven School in West Seneca has doubled its enrollment and faculty and staff welcomed students and parents alike as their children's focus shifts from summer fun to the enrichment of learning.
According to principal Mary Damico, Queen of Heaven closed the 2013-14 year in June with a total of 180 students, and it will open this year with 400 children. She said that although the closing of 10 Catholic schools as part of the diocesan "Faith in Tomorrow" campaign on Jan. 15 contributed to the increased number of students at her school, this was not the only factor that came into play.
"Schools closing had a big impact on that, although we have probably a dozen kids from public schools that have joined us as well," Damico said. "I think that our open house and our tours we gave from January through March (contributed). The staff was very welcoming and very energetic on our tours, and I think that brought in a lot of people that may have had reservations to begin with."
Damico said the school has welcomed incoming families with special retreat days for the new students. During one of these, the school held team-building activities where the middle school children met each other and their new teachers, and the same day also included a picnic for the students' parents. The next day included younger students, with an ice cream social for the youngest children to enjoy.
"We've gotten to meet the families. We've gotten to see what the space will be like with more kids here. We have opened another section of each grade level and have hired 10 teachers this year. The 10 teachers are coming all from closing schools. That was my priority here," Damico said. "We're very excited about the staff that we've hired and how they'll mesh in with the grade staff that we already have."
The new teachers came from St. Leo the Great in Amherst, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Elma, St. Mary of the Lake in Hamburg, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Orchard Park, St. Vincent de Paul in Spring Brook, St. Francis of Assisi in the City of Tonawanda and Fourteen Holy Helpers in West Seneca. Damico said the new students are primarily coming from Annunciation, Sacred Heart, St. Vincent de Paul and Fourteen Holy Helpers, as well as St. Bernadette in Orchard Park.
Damico said the class sizes would ideally remain small, between 17 and 25 children, in spite of the large numbers of transfer students. Although the middle school classes are larger than the kindergarten through fifth grade classes, all of the classes still fall in these parameters. In June, Buffalo's Business First ranked Queen of Heaven Middle School 19th of 205 Western New York public and private middle schools. Business First ranked the school 12th in the region for its English language arts program.
"The parents all seem very excited. They were hesitant and sad at first," Damico added. "This was a whole process of losing their school and their home, and all of that. I feel like the things we put in place to welcome them have made them feel more comfortable in their choices, and we've heard those kinds of things as feedback as well, both from the parents and the parishes that they're coming from."
To further welcome the students, Queen of Heaven will hold its first Mass as a school during the week of Thursday, Sept. 11, with a special twist. The parish invited the pastors of the incoming students' old school parishes to concelebrate the Mass, which will reinforce the idea that the pastors of the students' home parishes still have a presence at Queen of Heaven, even though the schools have closed.
"We're the only school left in West Seneca, so we feel like we have a great responsibility to the area to be as dynamic and 21st-century learning as possible. We already have many of those things put in place and, with the new influx of people, it just brings out more ideas and more culture, and things that we can grow with, and we're very excited about that," said Damico.