Parents aim to save school

Archdiocese cites low enrollment

A group of determined parents are doing everything they can to keep Cathedral Academy open, fighting a decision made by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in late November to close the 100-year-old school in the heart of the French Quarter.

Forming the group Parents for Education, Theresa Taylor and Jami Cuthbert have been leading efforts to gather signatures on paper and online petitions, hold rallies, garner support from neighbors and alumni and write letters and make phone calls to the archdiocese to plead the school’s case.

The group is planning an enrollment party, reaching out to employees who work in the nearby hotels and restaurants and encouraging them to make a pledge of interest in enrollment to show the archdiocese that numbers can be raised, parent Rhonda Wheeler said. Low enrollment is the primary reason the archdiocese has given for closure.

The decision was made after commissioning an external, data-driven study by John Convey and Leonard DeFiore of Catholic University of America in late 2010 to address fewer schools and declining enrollment, said Jan Lancaster, superintendent of archdiocese of New Orleans schools. She said the decision was a painful one, but Cathedral did not meet the criteria in terms of “enrollment, finances and the overall condition of the school’s facilities.”

Cathedral’s enrollment of 158 is under the benchmark of 200, Lancaster said, making it “unlikely that the school can sustain in the long-term.”

But the parent group disagrees and believes the school is worth saving.

Following Hurricane Katrina, both Taylor and Cuthbert returned to New Orleans and needed a school for their children. Cathedral was the first private or public school to open on the east bank, and Taylor and Cuthbert said they were welcomed with open arms and given financial assistance for tuition. Both mothers said their children have thrived at Cathedral and describe the school as a family.

Cuthbert, who has three children at the school, said she was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in 2004. Knowing the she was going to lose some mobility, Cuthbert said she knew it was imperative to find a place where her children would be cared for and nurtured spiritually.

“I needed to put my kids into the hands of people who could pick up where I fell short,” Cuthbert said.

Now, Cuthbert is searching for a new school for her kids, but she is unsure at this time if she will be able to continue to get the financial assistance to continue their Catholic education.

For Cuthbert and Wheeler, the fight to save the school goes beyond their own kids.

“I’m doing this for all the kids that are going to need this school in the future,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said she is also fighting for the Dominican sisters who live in the convent and teach at the school, calling them “miracle workers.” The Dominican sisters run the school with the stated mission of serving some of the neediest children in the city.

Of the 158 students currently enrolled, the majority are African American, and 154 are on free or reduced lunch; 153 of the students receive financial assistance, either through the state voucher program or other scholarship programs.

Lancaster acknowledged the sadness and frustration the parents are experiencing and said she is doing everything she can to help the parents continue a Catholic education for their children at other schools in the city. She said there’s a spot for every Cathedral student at St. Stephen’s Catholic School in Uptown, which also has an enrollment under 200 students. Lancaster said that despite its low enrollment, St. Stephen’s has more space.

But Wheeler she said she is dissatisfied with the arguments for closing and wants to see the data. If given the chance, she said, she is confident the school can recruit more kids. Wheeler said that the school paid off all its debts, gave its teachers a raise and did not need to take any money from the archdiocese for this school year. Last year the school raised $150,000 in one night with the help of Irene DiPietro of Irene’s Cuisine.

Lancaster said that one event and one year of self-sustainablity is not enough to counter Convey’s data and recommendation to close schools like Cathedral. Cathedral has needed financial assistance in the past, she said, and has consistently had an enrollment under 200.

Lancaster said Convey’s study will be published in March.

Wheeler argued that there are other schools with enrollments under 200 and noted that FEMA has allocated money for renovations at Cathedral.

“The Archdiocese of New Orleans has allocated money for Cathedral Academy as a FEMA alternate project,’’ Lancaster said in an email.

“Required renovations will be extensive. We do hope to begin renovations at Cathedral and bring Catholic education in some form back to the French Quarter at a later date.”

The facilities will be vacant at the end of the school year, Lancaster said. She said it is too soon to say when renovations will begin, what will happen to the facilities and when, or if, Catholic education will return to the school.

When McDonogh 15 moves out of the French Quarter in the next few years, no schools will remain in the city’s most historic neighborhood.

In September, Lancaster said in an interview with the Clarion Herald that 15 of the 85 schools under the archdiocese were identified as “struggling.” She said that some were able to increase enrollment when the voucher program expanded statewide last summer, but that others remain on a “watch list.”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond responded by email to a letter from Wheelter that asked him to reconsider the decision.

“Please know that this has been given serious thought, research and prayerful consideration,’’ he said in the Feb. 1 email.

“In fact, three separate, independent committees who reviewed the Strategic Plan of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans all recommended the same action, that the school needed to be closed. This is not an easy decision, and quite frankly, it would have been easier for me not to take seriously their recommendation. However, in order for us to be good stewards of the resources that God has given to us, we must look at consolidating some of our schools so that we can use the very best facilities in order to provide the very best education and formation for the young people of today.”

He also said that another five to seven schools are on a watch list and may have to be closed in the next couple of years.

Andi Bakalik, parent of first-grader Koel, said that trying to find a new school has been a “nightmare.” She said she has been spending every spare moment researching other schools and reading reviews. St. Stephen’s isn’t an option, she said, though she said she would like to keep her son in a Catholic education because, while not a Catholic herself, she said Koel loves the school and especially the sisters.

She said Koel sets his own alarm clock, refuses to be late and wants to go to school Saturdays.

“Kids need stability,” she said.

Bakalik said she is considering moving to Arabi to get him in a school she likes. “I’d do anything for my kid,” she said.

At Cathedral, Bakalik said she never has to worry or question.

“I know he’s safe, I know he’s happy, and I know he’s learning,” she said.