April  15,  2008

Holy Rosary School
closure a certainty

Diocesan school officials tried hard to put the best possible face on the closure of Holy Rosary school, but several of the approximately 100 parents and members of the Claymont Catholic parish who turned out for an informational meeting weren't in a mood to accept all their explanations.

"It's the way you approach the thing. ... I feel we've been disenfranchised," one man said. Another accused Catherine Weaver, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wilmington, of coming to the meeting ill-prepared or unwilling to answer legitimate questions. She offered to respond to any e.mailed questions for which she did not have the necessary information with her to give an accurate response at the meeting.

Weaver and assistant superintendent Louis DeAngelo insisted that Holy Rosary was not losing its school, but was being given the opportunity to join with neighboring St. Helena parish to open a 'new' school in which both congregations will share as equal partners.

Weaver said she "also would be interested in inviting Holy Child [parish] to join in the process." Holy Child, located on Naamans Road between Brandywood and Beacon Hill, does not have a school. Weaver is a parishioner there.

The 'new' school -- to be known as Pope John Paul II Catholic Elementary School -- will open in September and be housed in the building off Philadelphia Pike near Bellefonte  now occupied by St. Helena school.

It will offer a program extending from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Present students in both school are guaranteed admission.

Principals and teachers will be given the opportunity to be interviewed for positions in the 'new' one. They also will be considered for openings elsewhere in the Catholic schools system, Weaver said.

Although an earlier move to close Holy Rosary school was dropped in face of opposition, there was no doubt at the meeting on Apr. 14 that it will happen this time. After more than an hour of discussion, Weaver said unequivocally: "Pope John Paul II Elementary School will open in September."

In early 2006 the diocese proposed closing Holy Rosary school and accepting its students at St. Helena, but that plan was put aside in favor of an effort to increase Holy Rosary enrollment to a point where that school would be financially viable. That apparently was unsuccessful.

"The bishop allowed us to continue as far as we could go on alone. ... We were getting more and more into a critical situation," Holy Rosary pastor Clemens Manista said.

"Two years ago, you were in a better [financial] position," DeAngelo said. "Finances and enrollment at Holy Rosary will not permit continuation of the school. ... St. Helena's financial position was such that they could have maintained that school."

"The demographics in Claymont did not develop as we thought they would," Weaver said.

This time around, she said, the merger-closure originated with the parishes. "This is not a diocesan decision," she said. "This is a decision by both pastors to work together so that children in both parishes can have a Catholic education. ... They're the ones courageous enough to make the decision."

Manista confirmed that he and St. Helena pastor Stanley Russell agreed on the arrangement. "It was not imposed on the parishes. ... We didn't want to have a St. Hedwig situation," he said. Last year, the diocese closed St. Hedwig school in Wilmington and gave its students the option of attending St. Matthew school in Woodcrest.

Manista said Holy Rosary school "has been running a deficit for the last five years [and] could not absorb another deficit for the coming year."

A meeting attender objected to the decision having been presented as a fiat accompli without any parental or parishioner participation. "If this is what was being planned, why didn't we know about it two months ago?" he said. The first word Holy Rosary parents received, he said, was a letter from Manista sent late last week; other parishioners learned about it from newspaper publicity.

Weaver said a transition team consisting of the two pastors, three parents from each school and a representative from the diocesan school office will be formed. In addition, she said, students in both schools will be "asked to contribute their ideas."

At that point, the tone of the meeting turned contentious with three attenders referring to what they said has been a membership decline in Holy Rosary's congregation. "The management of the church is why people are leaving," a woman said. "Once the school closes, the parish is going to close too," a man said. Attenders who spoke at the meeting were not asked to identify themselves and none did.

Manista said he has scheduled a conference with the bishop, Michael Saltarelli, and is willing to do whatever is necessary "if it best serves the needs of the parish to make a change."

With 101 students registered for the 2008-09 academic year by an Apr. 4 deadline, Holy Rosary school is no longer "sustainable," Weaver said. St. Helena, with 144 students registered, would be for a while longer. Combined, they would have slightly more students than the 225 considered to be the minimum enrollment for a "healthy school," she said.

However, it was uncertain whether the present registrations will hold up. Three attenders at the meeting asked if the deposits they have made would be refunded. They were told they will be.

Information distributed at the meeting called for submitting a new registration by May 2. A year's tuition for members of either parish whose church donation is at least $550 a year will be $4,176 for the first child. The rate for non-parishioners will be $5,124. Somewhat lower tuitions are charged for second and third children in the same family.

Weaver said that a general rule-of-thumb in school consolidations is that the surviving school ends up with between 10% and 15% fewer students than the combined enrollments. She declined, however, to reveal an enrollment projection in this situation.

"Rather than talk about closing, we hope we can focus on what it takes to build this new school program by working together," she said. "We'll [also] be reaching out to others in this community who would be willing to join us."

She said she had talked to a class of older students and found them enthusiastic. While students will be permitted to wear their existing uniforms from their respective schools during the coming year, they asked to be able to begin establishing a new school identity with newly designed shirts. They also talked about coming up with school colors, a mascot and such. A merged athletic program will be in place by September, she said.

DeAngelo said Middle States accreditation both schools now have will be transferred to the 'new' school and remain in force until it is time for re-accreditation in 2010.

"We're asking for your trust that the new school will work," he said.

No one at the meeting referred specifically to the proposal last year by American College to buy the now-unused building on the Holy Rosary campus which formerly housed a conference center and before that a convent, but Manista said that part of the property is still available for sale. He said there is no present plan to dispose of the school building but it is possible that it will be offered for rent.

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