Tracy McGovern has been a Pre-K and second grade teacher for more than 15 years at St. Ann School in the Bronx. Her daughter is in the seventh grade there. But St. Ann just got some very bad news: it must shut its doors at the end of the school year. So McGovern and her daughter will both need to find a new school to call home.
Like other parents, teachers, and students at the school, she feels hurt and betrayed. “It’s devastating,” McGovern said. “My daughter was crying the whole time when we found out.”
St. Ann is one of six Catholic primary schools that the Archdiocese of New York will be closing at the end of this school year, according to a statement released by the Archdiocese last month. Three others are in the Bronx as well; St. Peter and Paul, Visitation, and St. Mary. The other two are St. Gregory the Great, in Manhattan, and St. Peter Regional, which is upstate in Liberty, N.Y. This brings the total number of schools closed by the Archdiocese since 2011 to 60. “These are difficult but necessary decisions, and working together, we will ensure our Catholic schools are stronger than ever,” said Dr. Timothy McNiff, Superintendent of Schools, in a statement.
According to the Archdiocese, the reason behind shutting down St. Ann School was because “continuing to educate students in a school where a significant portion of the facility is not utilized has proven infeasible.” McGovern and her fellow parents and teachers aren’t buying that argument from the Archdiocese, however. “The church is the only underutilized space in the building and it’s been closed for two years,” McGovern said. “We wanted to expand the school into the vacant church space, but the Archdiocese wouldn’t let us.” McGovern and others believe that this was a decision made by the Archdiocese long before February, and that the Archdiocese sees the school as a source of little revenue.
In fact, according to McGovern and others, St. Ann’s was growing. “We had been making a lot progress and really growing the school,” McGovern said. “We already had over 40 kids registered for Kindergarten next year and overall enrollment was up. It was very uplifting.”
The large number of Catholic school closings in the Archdiocese is not unique to New York. In fact, it’s a trend across the country. The number of private school students enrolled in Catholic schools in the nation—diocesan, parochial, or private—has dropped roughly 20 percent over the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The decline of students enrolled specifically in Catholic parochial schools has dropped more than 40 percent in the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education said.
Rita Schwartz, who serves as the president of the National Association of Catholic Teachers, believes that a shift in demographics has played a role in the decline in enrollment, especially in urban Catholic schools. “So many of the schools that are closing are city schools, and people are moving out to the suburbs,” Schwartz said.
Meanwhile, as fewer students enroll in Catholic schools, many of those schools are forced to raise tuition in order to stay financially afloat. Schwartz says the rising tuition costs is turning families away from a Catholic education. That is particularly the case when Catholic schools must compete with charter schools. “Tuition is just too expensive now,” Schwartz said. “People instead can get an education at charter schools now that are good schools and don’t cost nearly as much. We need to find a new revenue model that brings people back to Catholic schools.”
Not everyone in Catholic education sees it as struggling. Tom Burnford, who serves as the president and CEO of the National Catholic Educational Association, is encouraged by the growth of Catholic schools in the United States overall. Despite the overall decline in enrollment, “Let’s not forget that over 300 Catholic schools have opened in the last decade,” Burnford said.
While Burnford acknowledges that many Catholics are now moving out of urban areas, he believes there’s a positive aspect to this change. “Because of shifting demographics from the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest, many schools are opening in other parts of the country,” Burnford said. “We’re seeing more schools open in the South and on the West Coast, as well as an expanding Hispanic population in Catholic schools.
“Catholic schools are a great investment for the future because they pass along strong moral values,” he said.
But Burnford’s positive outlook on Catholic education doesn’t ease McGovern’s pain over the closing of St. Ann School in the Norwood section of the Bronx. “I was totally shocked,” McGovern said. “And then it turned into complete anger.”
According to McGovern, the school’s principal was informed of the Archdiocese’s decision the night before the statement was released. Every student at St. Ann, according to McGovern, was sent home from school that day with a sealed envelope in their backpacks, informing their parents of the Archdiocese’s decision. Students at St. Peter and Paul School were also sent home with an envelope informing their parents of the Archdiocese’s decision.
According to the Archdiocese, every student impacted by the school closings will be guaranteed a seat at another Catholic school in the Archdiocese. But parents and teachers are concerned that other Catholic schools will become overcrowded, leading to a decline in the quality of education for their students.
Sylvia Rini, an eighth grade teacher at St. Ann School for seven years now, said that her students were crying when they found out the school would be closing. They were upset. Rini believes that the school closing is unfair to those students—as well as their parents and her co-workers. “We didn’t choose for the school to close and we’re not being given the chance to fight,” Rini said. “We’re being punished for something that’s not our fault. I feel like the Archdiocese is being bullies. It’s very threatening.”
According to Rini and McGovern, the Archdiocese is delivering mixed messages over whether or not teachers can apply for new jobs at other schools. While the Archdiocese has asked its teachers not to begin searching for jobs at other schools yet, Rini and McGovern have both found job listings online for teaching positions in the Archdiocese and have alerted their union on the matter. Rini says that she can’t afford to wait until the Archdiocese tells her when to start looking for a new job.
“I can’t just sit and do nothing right now,” Rini said. “We’re looking all over for jobs. I love what I do and I would love to stay in the Archdiocese. But I have to look elsewhere for a job.”
While finding a new teaching job is also a concern for McGovern, she’s also a parent of a daughter who “has to go to another school just for eighth grade and make new friends,” McGovern said. “It’s not going to be an easy transition for her.”