Chicago Archdiocese to consolidate Catholic schools

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Francis Cardinal George has approved a plan to consolidate Catholic schools across the Archdiocese that will close six schools and reconfigure several others in the Chicago area, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Archdiocese officials said nearby schools with open seats have been identified for families affected by the closures, which includes 1,280 elementary students. Officials said the plan will also affect 107 full-time and 17 part-time teachers as well as 47 aides and 58 staff members.

As of July 1, 2015, the following schools will be closed:
-St. Hyacinth, 3640 West Wolfram St.
-St. Ladislaus, 3330 North Lockwood Ave.
-St. Turibius, 4120 West 57th St.
-St. Rene Goupil, 6340 South New England Ave.

-St. Peter, 8140 Niles Center Road

-St. Lawrence O'Toole, 4101 St. Lawrence Ave.

The following schools will be reconfigured as part of the plan:
-St. Dorothy School, 7740 South Eberhart Ave., and St. Columbanus School, 7120 South Calumet Ave., are partnering to form a new Catholic school on Chicago's South Side. It will be named Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy, at 7210 South Calumet Ave.

-Saint Agatha Catholic Academy at 3151 West Douglas Blvd. will become an Early Childhood Center with a potential partnership with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Students at Saint Agatha will be welcomed at nearby Catholic schools that have the capacity for 2015-2016 school year.

-The Nativity Early Childhood Center at 2740 West 68th St. will continue to serve the Marquette Park neighborhood, with the potential partnership of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

-Holy Cross School, 720 Elder Lane in Deerfield, and St. James School, 140 North Ave. in Highwood, are partnering to merge students and traditions from St. James to Holy Cross.

-Our Lady of Destiny School, 1880 Ash St., is partnering with St. Zachary School, 567 West Algonquin Road, to merge students and traditions from Our Lady of Destiny to St. Zachary.

It's a new beginning for two Southside Catholic Schools. Father Matthew O'Donnell and a fellow priest from nearby St. Dorothy came up with a plan a month ago to save their schools: they'll merge together to form a new academy.

"We are going to take the best values from St. Dorothy's and St. Columbanus, the best of people from St. Dorothy's and St. Columbanus, and bring that together in the Tolton Academy," Father O'Donnell said.

Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy, which is named after a priest who was born a slave, will use the St. Columbanus building. The school will focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

"We are going to be able to have a brand-new curriculum," Father O'Donnell says. "It's the first of its kind in the entire archdiocese of Chicago."

As Catholic school students, staff and parents were told about closures and consolidations, the situation does not come as a total surprise as some schools have struggled with low enrollment for years.

"There is a reality that the average enrollment of schools affected today, about 125 students, which is very difficult to maintain over long term in a sustainable and enriched program that's well-resourced," said Thomas McGrath, chief operating officer for Catholic Schools.

Changing demographics have played a role, especially at some the city schools where the catholic school was once the center of the neighborhood, but no longer is because people have moved on.

At St. Hyacinth Catholic School in the city's Northwest Side, they are not thinking long-term. Parents are thinking about where to send their kids next year. Hyacinth is closing after being in this neighborhood for over 100 years.

"We thought we were one of the schools that could survive, it truly hurts because this is my legacy, this was my family parish," said Mike Heneghan, a parent.

Chicago's next archbishop Blase Cupich made education a priority in Spokane, Wash., by creating a non-profit group called Nazareth Guild to sustain schools financially, and he's given much credit. And that raises hopes for local priests like Father O'Donnell.

"We do want to work with Archbishop Cupich so that we make sure that parents who experience school closures and name changes, that they don't have to do that again," O'Donnell said.

VIDEO: Saint James School to close as part of Archdiocese consolidation

The announcement means students at Saint James School in North Suburban Highwood will have to travel to neighboring Deerfield if they wish to continue a Catholic education, as the Archdiocese plans to merge Saint James with Holy Cross School.

"I don't want it to move, I don't want it to change, we have another daughter so our plan is to have the same process," said Bess Bates, a parent.

Most parents have not even had a chance to consider what they might do next year.

The sign outside the school says they are now enrolling students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The school has been providing Catholic education for 89 years, but according to the Archdiocese plan, the school will close at the end of the academic year.

"The transition plan will provide clearly lit, well-understood pathways for families to go from one school to another Catholic school nearby," McGrath said.

Archdiocese officials say the decision was made now to give parents and students almost a whole year to transition into a new school. Others say it may have to do with the fact that there's a new cardinal coming in.
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