Century-old SW Side Catholic school closing

October 7, 2011 (CHICAGO)

The century-old Maria High School in the Marquette Park community will be converted into a public charter school in 2013. Enrollment has fallen over the years, but the school's students and faculty are still sad to see it go.

They are sad, but resigned, and maybe just a little excited that new life is going to be injected into an icon of the Southwest Side -- if the board of the Chicago Public Schools approves Catalyst Education's bid to turn same-sex Maria High into Catalyst-Maria, a co-ed facility that would have children from kindergarten to the 12th grade eventually gracing all of its halls.

The spit and polish of this century-old school reflects the values at the core of what's taught here: Relationships, results and love -- even if vast swaths of it are empty.

"It is a family," said Maria High School student council president Ashanti McCall. "it is weird to have males kind of violate that. It is going to be difficult."

Maria High School President Wendy Lynn came to head this school three years ago and has watched as enrollment dropped by one-third from 2007. There are only 207 kids in class this year. There were upwards of 1,400 a generation ago.

"We see incremental progress in the fundraising, but our student enrollment is declining and I really think it has to be because of the economics," said Lynn.

Catalyst Schools, a Chicago non-profit that runs two charter schools on the West Side, wants to transform this school into a full curriculum, K-12 learning center that will teach according to Christian principles that administrators say have been at the heart of its success.

The Sisters of Casimir Order has spent over $10 million since the late 1990s subsidizing the school. It charges $7,500 tuition -- uniforms, textbooks and athletic fees included -- but many students cannot pay.

The faith of the sisters has been tested in signing on to turning Maria into a secular charter school.

"We are very hopeful that it will be a wonderful experience and that just educating these students is what we are all about," said Sister Immacula Wendt, General Superior Sisters of St. Casimir.

Maria's all-girls policy was designed to breed confidence, something some of its most illustrious graduates hope will survive.

"That you feel you can go out into the world and handle just about everything-- I hope that confidence-building will be there for all the students, whether boys or girls," said Cook County States' Attorney Anita Alvarez.

The change, if it goes through, will happen in stages. Next year, Catalyst Schools will operate kindergarten to 9th grade under a new name, Catalyst-Maria. The sisters will run Maria High School for the upper grades next year. In the fall of 2013, it will become K-12 -- all Catalyst-Maria.

That CPS board meeting where the charter school proposal is expected to be reviewed is November 16. CPS said it did not have a view on the issue.

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