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Beyond the crisis: Surviving Long Island Catholic schools aim for September start

Brother Thomas Cleary, president of Chaminade High School

Brother Thomas Cleary, president of Chaminade High School in Mineola, heads the Morning Star Initiative seeking to rejuvenate Long Island's Catholic grammar schools despite recent pandemic-related struggles. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Long Island’s Catholic grammar schools were worried about their future as enrollment declined, costs increased and Catholic schools closed throughout the country.

So, last fall the Marianist Brothers, who run Chaminade High School in Mineola, joined with the Diocese of Rockville Centre to help revitalize the schools. Then, the coronavirus hit, and overnight the mission turned to survival.

The Marianists, a religious order whose focus is education, now are working with the diocese to try to avoid more closures and get back to the mission of strengthening the schools. Church officials are optimistic about the remaining 35 Catholic grammar schools on the Island.

“The pandemic may have detoured our plan, but it has not deterred our commitment to the Morning Star Initiative,” as the effort is called, said Brother Thomas Cleary, president of Chaminade and head of the initiative.

The coronavirus played a role in the closure of three Catholic schools on Long Island, and 26 in the dioceses of New York and Brooklyn, as parents who lost income or jobs could no longer pay tuition.

While questions remain about a full return to classes in public schools, many Catholic schools aim to have all students return to class five days a week in September for live instruction, along with a vigorous online program for students who can't attend school, diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said. But that decision also will depend on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who said he will announce the first week of August whether schools can reopen.

One consultant who is helping the Catholic schools plan a safe reopening believes the pandemic could work to their advantage, if they are able to offer a full back-to-school schedule — and many public schools do not.

The Catholic schools also are instituting a program of top teachers sharing their methods with others.

Some Catholic schools already have seen enrollment increases over the summer, including from families who are leaving New York City for the suburbs, church and school officials said.

At St. Aidan School in Williston Park, three families from Manhattan have enrolled their children for the fall, Principal Julie O’Connell said. She also is getting calls from parents who have heard that many Catholic schools had live instruction through videoconferencing during the coronavirus shutdown, in contrast to many public schools.

“I am getting phone calls from local public school parents who are really concerned about what it is going to look like for their children, and they want to know: Are we going to be in person?” O’Connell said.

O'Connell said St. Aidan has figured out a way to safely have all 400-plus students back in the building for a full day of classes, five days a week. Part of that is because the school has extra space it can turn into classrooms.

St. Aidan has decided to limit class sizes to 15 to 17 students, and is measuring classrooms and other spaces to see how many students can fit while socially distancing, she said.

Enrollment at the school has increased, from 425 last year to 440 for the fall.

St. Aidan and the other grammar schools are receiving the assistance of Perrotta Consulting, a Long Beach company that specializes in helping businesses and schools reopen safely. The  company's founder, Chaminade graduate Nicholas Perrotta, said the business is coming up with an individual plan for each school.

The company's recommendations include temperature screenings for students and staff, no parents visiting the building, social distancing, keeping students in one "cohort" or group throughout the day so mixing is minimized, and regular disinfecting.

The cost of the program will range from $10,000 for a smaller school to $100,000 or more for a larger one, Perrotta said.

"This is a tremendous opportunity, that if we get it right, it's going to drive up enrollment like you've never seen before," he said.

Still, Catholic schools face a severe challenge, said Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank. More than 100 have closed nationwide as a result of the pandemic, and as enrollment and income decrease in some middle- and lower-income communities, that leaves less money to reopen amid the pandemic with its added costs.

"These are as tough times as we've seen for Catholic schools in decades, probably," Smarick said.

Dolan said the church does not expect any more schools to close in the near future. There are nine Catholic high schools on Long Island, but they are not part of the initiative. 

Many of Long Island's Catholic schools showed their nimbleness when they immediately launched into live instruction within days of the shutdown, Cleary said.

Brother Kenneth Hoagland, principal of Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale and another Marianist leader of the initiative, said his school practiced live online instruction two weeks before the shutdown because he had a hunch the mandated closure was coming.

“It was no secret, the distance learning protocols that the Catholic schools got up and running quite readily, parents were impressed with that,” Cleary said.

Another initiative the Marianists introduced to the grammar schools was a “curriculum leads” program in which top teachers in each grade were selected and then developed an online curriculum that was shared with other teachers throughout the diocese.

“It raised the academic rigor of everyone and allowed everyone to share best practices,” Cleary said. “It just sharpened everyone’s skills almost overnight.”

The Marianists plan to help strengthen a “robust Catholic culture” in the schools, and to follow one of their mantras that “atmosphere educates.” They are well known for the pet dogs they allow to roam the hallways, creating a family like environment, though Cleary joked the brothers will not be able to supply a dog to every school. 

The Morning Star Initiative team visited 25 Catholic grammar schools before the coronavirus shutdown. Some principals said they felt reassured having the Marianists support them, along with the diocesan Department of Education.

“They have strong leadership. They have a proven track record,” said Roseann Petruccio, principal of St. Patrick School in Bay Shore. “They know education. It’s their forte. I feel confident with them in the lead.”

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