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McKinstry: Hard realities hit Catholic schools

St. Augustine School in New City is among

St. Augustine School in New City is among the area Catholic schools that that has been set to close at the end of the school year. (Nov. 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

As soon as the package from Lu-Del's clothing supplier arrived one summer day in 1978, I ripped it open, put on the gear, and ran outside to show the neighbors. It was my very first uniform.

To this Catholic school first-grader, it didn't matter that the olive green pants, yellow shirt and plaid clip-on tie weren't at all fashionable -- in fact, these duds were downright dowdy. I was joining the ranks of the big kids on my block going to St. Paul the Apostle School in Yonkers -- and proud of it.

Back then, it wasn't a question in my folk's house where me or my two sisters would go to grammar school. Despite having two options just a short walk away -- St. Paul's on one side of the street and Public School 21 on the other -- most of the dozen or so kids on our block went to the parochial school.

We were, after all, members of the parish. We learned to read, write and add from the nuns, priests and a handful of dedicated lay people -- all working for a pittance, I'm sure. We worked on penmanship and phonics; attended Mass on the holy days and the first Friday of the month, and learned layups in the basement gym, which doubled as a theater. We played stickball in the parking lot, but never on Sundays. St. Paul's was much more than a building.

We were the sons and daughters of the working class: Our parents were cops, teachers, construction workers and bus drivers, and very often they had attended Catholic school, too. (My mother's grammar school was in the Bronx, my dad's in Harlem, each school loaded with children whose parents immigrated from other countries.)

Clearly there were religious reasons for attending Catholic school. But there were also social, cultural and financial factors -- parochial schools were affordable (sometimes even a bargain) and, depending on where you lived, often the best option. Many of us went on to Catholic high schools like Archbishop Stepinac, Iona Prep, Fordham Prep, Maria Regina, Ursuline and Cardinal Spellman -- and some of us continued the tradition by attending Catholic colleges.

Parish schools may one day be a thing of the past, as the Archdiocese of New York deals with significant economic and demographic changes and moves toward a more regional model of education.

The archdiocese this week announced a round of closures -- 22 elementary schools and two high schools, bringing the tally of shuttered buildings to roughly 50 over the past three years.

The schools are scattered throughout the region and include Holy Name of Jesus in Valhalla, Our Lady of Fatima in Scarsdale, St. Casimir in Yonkers, Our Lady of Assumption in Peekskill, St. Peter in Haverstraw, Blessed Sacrament in New Rochelle (where my dad was once a teacher) and others in Manhattan, Bronx and the Hudson Valley.

St. Paul's is still going strong and vital, and I'm told it still has the same principal from when I was there decades ago. So I can imagine how upsetting these closures are to the parents and children affected -- that's a testament to the value of these community schools.

I can't tell you if it makes sense to close one school over another - that's far too difficult. But overall the numbers don't add up. There are not enough people paying the roughly $3,500 to $5,000 a year in tuition (sometimes more) to keep these schools afloat. Smartboards, computers and the modern tools of teaching are expensive -- far more than the pencils, desks and marble notebooks of yesterday.

The scenario is further complicated when you consider there are fewer members of the clergy, a larger reliance on more expensive lay teachers who deserve a fair wage, rising costs, better public schools, high taxes that make private school a tougher choice, and a movement by some Catholics away from the church (though the number of Catholics has held steady, mostly because of immigration, a 2008 Pew survey found that one-third of people who were raised Catholic in this country, no longer identify themselves that way).

Scandals all across the church -- sexual and financial -- haven't helped, either.

Whatever the reasons, many parochial schools can't sustain themselves. And while wealthier parishes have always helped poorer ones, consolidations are in order. This decision is a reflection of all these factors.

But the implications and broader questions for the church and its flock are complicated and nuanced. Where will students go? How will leaders deal with schools in poorer communities? Will there be schools only for the wealthy? How important are these institutions to the growth and success of the church and the faith?

The archdiocese has contemplated these concerns and many more, according to Joseph Zwilling, its spokesman. The 19th century model of one school per parish is no longer viable, and the aim is to move toward regional schools, he said.

Over the past six years, the archdiocese has provided more than $100 million to its schools, including $24 million this academic year. Nonetheless, attendance has dropped from 73,282 in 2003 to just above 50,000 in 2012.

"That's simply not sustainable," Zwilling said. "We have to pay our bills."

The archdiocese accepted recommendations for closure from regional councils, boards and parents, and it has been thoughtful and deliberative, he said. The archdiocese expects that many affected families can attend schools that will remain open.

Truth is, some won't.

To deal with that, the archdiocese says it's going to invest more money -- proceeds from the sales of buildings, property and income from leases -- in religious education, commonly known as CCD, for the growing number of Catholics who attend public schools, and create an education fund that returns money to parishes.

"We want to continue to grow the system, but do it with fewer buildings," he said.

Consolidations are unfortunate. And while the church and archdiocese haven't been known as beacons of change, clearly a new model is needed.

That may be the only way to save those schools that remain.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.