Declining enrollments lead to rash of Catholic school closings - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Declining enrollments lead to rash of Catholic school closings

By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

EUCLID, Ohio (AP) - Frank Stachnik's family has a two-generation connection to St. Paul School that will end June 4 when the Catholic elementary school closes.

The school, located in a gritty neighborhood among a water plant, railroad tracks and industrial buildings one block from Cleveland, fell victim to a familiar litany of problems: a tough economy, declining enrollment and people moving to nicer suburbs.

It's one of several Catholic schools across Ohio and the nation that is closing because of the challenges.

The closures are changing the landscape of city neighborhoods and intensifying the call by some to expand school voucher programs that have saved some parochial schools from the fate of shutting down.

Stachnik, 66, saw his children and grandchildren attend the 94-year-old St. Paul and watched tuition climb to $4,500 for two grandchildren this year, with enrollment at 150. Next year's projected enrollment was 127.

Through it all, school families raised money with Easter candy sales, raffles, wholesale food sales and racing nights.

Volunteering at concession stands at a Cleveland Indians game knocked $50 off the tuition bill.

Across town, St. Christine School in Euclid also will close at the end of the year, another example of Catholic schools jeopardized by finances and outflanked by suburban sprawl.

Pending closings include the 106-year-old Immaculate Conception in Ravenna east of Akron, Lorain Catholic High School and, elsewhere, three schools in the Mobile, Ala., area, St. Ann in Somerville, Mass., and St. Philomena in Beaver Falls, Pa.

The shutdown numbers will grow as shrinking schools merge to survive, including three in suburban Bedford and Maple Heights and three in Columbus.

In the Youngstown Catholic Diocese, which includes the Ravenna school, total enrollment has dropped 6.9 percent in the past year and 13 percent in two years. The diocese said needy students are the first to leave parochial schools, with enrollment down 31 percent among youngsters from poor families.

The National Catholic Education Association, representing Catholic school teachers, said there was a net loss of 45 Catholic elementary and secondary schools last year, with 123 closing or consolidating for a total of 7,955. Overall enrollment dipped 2.7 percent to 2.5 million.

Catholic schools in Cleveland avoided the recent rash of shutdown announcements, in part because they have been able to attract students who get state-paid tuition vouchers in the Cleveland-only program.

Overall enrollment has declined 22 percent to 7,738 in the 30 Cleveland Catholic elementary schools that accept vouchers. Still, the number of voucher students in the 8-year-old program has risen to 4,504, or nearly 60 percent of the 30-school total.

Michael J. Guerra, president of the 200,000-member NCEA, said some closings reflect population changes, but said other Catholic schools would have a better chance of survival if vouchers spread like the federally approved program for Washington, D.C., schools.

He said in the annual NCEA report in March that families unable to afford private school tuition or a move to a better school district "deserve an opportunity to choose schools."

Stachnik, whose sixth-grade grandson and third-grade granddaughter must enroll elsewhere when St. Paul closes, said Cleveland public schools weren't an option, in part because of safety concerns.

"You read all the time about them having fights," he said.

Byron D. Weems, 43, who has sold real estate in the Euclid area for 18 years, said the availability of nonpublic schools can be a factor in a neighborhood's attractiveness to buyers.

"You may have people relocating and they find out you don't have a private or parochial school in the community, then they may not be interested," he said.

Cleveland Councilman Mike Polensek, who has represented an area including part of St. Paul parish for more than two decades, fears the loss of the school will have a domino affect.

Without alternatives to public schools, people "might pick up and leave," said Polensek, who attended St. Paul briefly but left for public school because his family couldn't afford the tuition.

In other Cleveland neighborhoods, there was a pattern of parochial schools closing followed by churches locking their doors, he said. "As these schools go, so does the community," he said.

Lorain Catholic High School backers have threatened to appeal the shutdown to the Vatican.

Kara Afrates, 32, a 1989 alumna of Lorain Catholic, said the school survived massive steel industry layoffs in the city and other economic hardships. She's angry that the school now faces shutdown just one year after it became independent of the Cleveland diocese, which had pumped $2 million in subsidies into the school between 1992-2003.

The diocese and the lay-dominated Lorain Catholic board said it would be unconscionable to begin another school year and risk a midyear shutdown when the projected freshman class would have 26 students. Enrollment has dropped for 10 years to the current 202.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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