At the beginning of September, Salve Regina Catholic Academy (nursery-8) opened its doors, a brand new Catholic school in East New York that formed from the merger of three struggling schools—St. Rita’s and St. Michael’s in East New York and St. Sylvester’s in City Line. Boasting more than 730 students, it is now the largest Catholic school in the Diocese of Brooklyn (which also includes Queens).
To Alvida Cordoba, 62, the librarian for the 4th to 8th grades, the consolidation of the schools becomes more real as she consolidates the three schools’ book collections, unpacking boxes of books and putting them on new bookshelves. Her children attended St. Michael’s, whose building on Jerome Street now houses Salve Regina, and she’s been working in the building for 23 years in various volunteer and part-time jobs.
She misses her children’s alma mater. Gingerly, she picks up one volume and flips to the back. “I have to stamp the books with the new school name, and it’s not St. Michael’s anymore,” she says wistfully. “I pull out the old cards in the back of each book, and it’s like saying ‘goodbye.’”
Just as Cordoba meticulously integrates the schools’ books, administrators at Salve Regina are working to integrate the three different communities to form an entirely new community and identity. It’s not an easy task.
St. Rita’s, St. Michael’s, and St. Sylvester’s had to merge because they faced declining enrollments, according to William Geasor, the principal of Salve Regina, who was also the principal of St. Rita’s for 34 years. He says that four years ago St. Rita’s had about 600 students, St. Michael’s had 450, and St. Sylvester’s had 280. Last year, St. Rita’s student population dropped to about 450, St. Michael’s to 280, and St. Sylvester’s to 190. As enrollments fell, tuition increased, making it more difficult for families to afford to send their kids to the schools.
In order to ease the financial burden on current families and encourage enrollment, the administration decided to set Salve Regina’s price tag at $3,600, the same amount as the tuition at St. Rita’s and the lowest rate of the three schools. Ninety-five percent of children at Salve Regina come from St. Rita’s and St. Michael’s, which were only four blocks apart, while only 30 students come from St. Sylvester’s, which was 15 blocks away. St. Michael’s also became the logical place for the new school because it had two buildings, both an elementary school and a high school (which closed in 1976), that could fit all of the new students now and in the years to come.
“There were eight schools in this neighborhood six years ago, and by last year, we were down to three,” Geasor says. “Some of the children in the building now have already been in three different schools before this year, so we’re trying to provide stability.”
Since 2005, 28 schools have closed in Brooklyn, according to Stefanie Gutierrez, the press secretary of the Diocese of Brooklyn. Yet this phenomenon is not unique to Brooklyn Catholic schools. Since 2000, elementary school enrollment has dropped nationwide by around 35% in the nation’s 12 urban dioceses, and 1,755 schools merged or closed, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Declining Catholic school enrollment is the result of the changing demographics of the church, which has created a kind of “perfect storm,” according to Joseph O’Keefe, S.J., a professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education who specializes in urban elementary schools. More traditionally Catholic families—Irish, Italian, Polish communities—have been moving out of cities and into the suburbs. There has also been an “exodus” of white, affluent Catholics, and an increase in the number of Catholic immigrants and Hispanics, a population that “does not have the wherewithal to afford Catholic school.” Catholic schools are also more expensive to operate now that they are almost entirely run by lay (non-religious) people, who have to be paid more than nuns who take a vow of poverty.
Since 2008, in light of these demographic changes, the Diocese of Brooklyn has been consolidating the smaller parish elementary schools into larger, regional academies so that schools can meet their overhead costs. The idea is that it is more economical to manage bigger schools than a patchwork of small schools. So far there are nine academies in Brooklyn (17 in the entire Diocese), and the Diocese hopes all parish elementary schools will turn into private Catholic academies by 2017.
“The biggest challenge is building trust and building community among the people,” says Tom Chadzutko, the Superintendent of Schools.
O’Keefe, who has consulted on Catholic school mergers in Boston, emphasizes that simply merging struggling schools is not enough.
“If you take three failing schools and put them together, you get one failing school,” he says. “You want to bring the best of the traditions and culture of the schools that have merged, but you really want to create something new.”
Some innovations can be as simple as school spirit. Right off the bat, Salve Regina instituted a new uniform as a visual reminder to students that they go to a different school now. At first glance, one cannot tell who went to St. Rita’s or who went to St. Michael’s in the bustling sea of blue and gray plaid skirts, navy blue pants, and pale blue polo shirts with Salve Regina emblazoned in gold stitching. “We didn’t want them to bring their self-identity from three different schools and have three different schools present in the building,” Geasor said.
The administration has also integrated nearly all of the classes and after-school activities from the three schools—from St. Rita’s Spanish language program to St. Michael’s robotics club—and added new baseball and basketball teams. Roxanna Elder, 39, Salve Regina’s assistant principal and former assistant principal at St. Rita’s, said the faculty spent the entire summer getting ready for the new year without extra pay; some didn’t even take vacations.
Pooling resources has allowed the school to provide more federally funded special education classes for students struggling in reading and has also given the school the opportunity to purchase new technology like SMART Boards for almost every classroom. Thanks to donations from Petro Oil, the school will also have a new state-of-the-art science lab, but for now the room is just a graveyard of cardboard boxes filled with textbooks and equipment from the three schools’ science programs.
Some students and teachers are still getting used to how big Salve Regina is. There are so many new students that the school had to add extra 5th grade and 3rd grade classes last month.
“I’ve gotten lost in Salve Regina a couple of times,” St. Rita’s alum Jsmine Adams, 12, admits bashfully, with a giggle.
Eugenia Colon, 48, a parent of a Salve Regina student, thinks the school feels a little more “crowded” now, but she sees the merger as a necessary evil. “There’s more kids, but the school stays open,” she says.
As the school has grown, so has the faculty’s workload. Teachers used to have 15 to 20 students in each class, but this year they have about 30 students per class. “When I taught at St. Michael’s, I saw 60 students a day,” says Henry Schoolfield, 49, who teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies. “Now I see 180 students a day. The second you hit the front door, it’s like getting on a rollercoaster.”
All of the teachers who worked at the three schools had to apply for jobs at Salve Regina. According to Elder, the academy’s new board of directors determined how many teachers should be hired. The superintendent’s office interviewed candidates and made recommendations to Geasor, who made the final decisions. Out of the 42 teachers who taught at the three schools, Salve Regina hired 28 of them. Of the rest, half of them didn’t make the cut and the other half just didn’t apply for jobs at the new school. Two out of the three principals are at Salve Regina, including Sister Peggy Merritt, the former principal of St. Michael’s, who stayed on to be the new director of development. Overall, most of the remaining teachers knew each other going into the new school year from participating in workshops and grading state tests together.
While the administration at Salve Regina has been trying to integrate as many elements of the three schools as possible, some things have had to give—like recess. Students from St. Michael’s, for instance, used to get half an hour for lunch and half an hour for recess at their old school. Geasor says that recess does not fit into the schedule because the school day is six-and-a-half hours long, and the state requires students to be in class for six hours a day. He is willing to extend the school day to seven-hours, but he wants to let parents decide. In the meantime, he encourages teachers to give students 15-20 minute breaks at the end of classes or take them to the gymnasium to blow off some steam.
However, 8th grader Julian Wilson, 13, still feels like he doesn’t have enough time to socialize outside of the classroom.
“I don’t get to see my friends anymore,” he says, “and I can’t go to after-school activities because I have to get home to watch my little brother, so I only have 15 minutes at the beginning of the day to talk to people.”
Other conspicuous signs of the transition are the boxes tucked away in the corners of classrooms, and the extra desks, chairs, and monitors sitting in the hallways. The dimly lit corridor connecting the gymnasium to the cafeteria is like a ghostly shrine, with photographs of students, teachers, and families from St. Michael’s taped to the white, peeling walls.
“People become very attached to schools, especially Catholic schools because they aren’t just where you go to school, but a lot of your religious formation happens there,” O’Keefe says. “They’re also multi-generational. People have gone to those schools before. You have to allow people to grieve.”
Schoolfield allows students to vent in his social studies class. “I’ve let them talk about their feelings whenever the issue of their old schools comes up,” he says. “Most of the kids cried. All three communities were devastated, and because I’m a teacher, I see the devastation. A school closing is like asking you to leave your home.”
In the meantime, physical education teacher Casey Seawright, 31, who taught at St. Rita’s for seven years, says the key to making the students feel at home in the new school is getting their names right. And that’s no small feat for someone who teaches all 730-plus students.
“But the minute you know a child’s name, they feel like they’re a part of something, whether they’re from St. Rita’s, St. Michael’s or St. Sylvester’s,” he says. He looks over his shoulder at the herd of restless 8th graders waiting to start gym class. “I mean, by Christmas, I should know all of their names. Hopefully.”