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Pondering future as 6 Catholic schools shut down

Portrait of (clockwise from left) Jeanette and James

Portrait of (clockwise from left) Jeanette and James McCarthy with their children, six year old Eoghan, and four year old Liam, at their home. Both Children attend Our Lady of Perpetual Help school which is one of the schools scheduled to close. (June 15, 2012) Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

Christine Kennedy decided to transfer her 7-year-old son to public school in Farmingdale after church officials announced the local Catholic school would close, but she still can't bring herself to sign him up.

"It's hard to go" and officially enroll him, she said. "That means it's done." The closing of St. John Baptist De LaSalle Regional School in Farmingdale, she added, "feels like a funeral."

Six Catholic schools across Long Island will shut down this week as the Diocese of Rockville Centre seeks to consolidate and strengthen its education system in the face of declining enrollment.

Most parents will be sending their children to another Catholic school, but some are opting out of the system and heading for public schools.

There is worry among them that the diocesan Catholic school closings may not be over.

"There is no guarantee the schools will be there," said Kennedy, 42, a Farmingdale resident who was a volunteer at De LaSalle. "I currently believe that the Catholic elementary education system is broken."

Diocesan officials said the closings -- announced in December after an 18-month study -- are unavoidable and in the long run will strengthen the overall education system. Officials said they hope to avoid any more closings for at least the next four to five years.

Diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said the church's most recent studies indicate 79 percent of about 1,000 k-8 students from the closing schools have registered in another Catholic school. He added that they have signed up in 29 different Catholic schools in the diocese.

"Parents faced with the upsetting news that their beloved school would close were forced to make a decision they probably didn't think they'd have to make until their child or children would graduate from that school," Dolan said. "Regardless of their decision, their connection to their parish and their faith continues.

"We hope and pray that they continue to help and grow the seed of faith that was germinating in their child or children during their Catholic school experience."

Some public school officials said they have seen a number of Catholic school students register in their districts for the fall.

In Sayville, five of the 21 students who attend Prince of Peace Regional School -- one of the six slated to close -- have enrolled in the public school district for September, district officials said. Nine are going to other Catholic schools and seven haven't notified the district of their decision.

About a dozen of the 77 students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Lindenhurst will be attending public schools in that community this fall, district officials said. In Hicksville, three of the 51 students who attend St. Ignatius Loyola and live in the community have enrolled in its public school.

One parent who will continue to send his children to Catholic schools is Brian O'Keefe, 43, an attorney from North Merrick with two children at Sacred Heart in North Merrick.

"We're disappointed Sacred Heart School is closing, but we still believe in Catholic education," he said.

In September O'Keefe will send Raymond, 11, to the Brother Joseph C. Fox Latin School, run by the Marianist Brothers, in Uniondale. Meaghan, 8, will go to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Regional School in Bellmore.

Other parents debated about whether to send their children to public or Catholic schools. James McCarthy, 43, of Babylon, said he favored enrolling his two children in public school, but his wife, Jeanette, 41, insisted otherwise.

Their sons will be transferring from Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Lindenhurst, which they attended for two years, to St. Patrick's in Bay Shore.

"The public schools on the Island are pretty good," James McCarthy said.

But his wife, a product of Catholic schools here and in the Philippines, said, "I'm very adamant -- they have to go to Catholic school. I want them to have the religious education that I experienced."

Kennedy said she is still reeling from the LaSalle's closing. She was deeply involved in the school for 11 years as a parent helping with fundraising and coaching.

"I've been here with high enrollment, low enrollment, mergers, new principals -- I've been through it all," she said. "But I did not see this one coming."

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