Livin’ on a Prayer
In the midst of the lone winter storm snow last month, more than 250 parents and students rallied outside of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre wearing t-shirts bearing the message “Save our schools” over their winter coats and scarves, their picket signs showing a similar sentiment.
Children bundled up in snowsuits and winter boots gathered together and prayed the “Our Father,” their faces barely visible through dense layers of scarves and hats. The kids and their parents all wore something signifying which school they attend—six schools that they hoped to convince church leaders to reconsider closing.
“It’s our home,” says Deborah Greulich, who has two children at St. John Baptist de LaSalle Regional in Farmingdale. “The education is second to none, [and] the values are so important; we really cannot afford to lose any more [Catholic] schools on Long Island. We would like to work with the bishop to find a way to keep these schools open. The future of the church and the future of our children depend on it.”
Bishop William Murphy, who oversees the Diocese of Rockville Centre, maintains that the plan is the only way to save Catholic education on LI from decreasing enrollment. Like public school leaders, he cites student population trends.
“The decrease in school-age children and the difficult economic climate on Long Island…have brought us to the painful decision to close schools,” Murphy said in a January letter addressed to parents of affected students after an Advisory Committee on Catholic Education studied the 53 elementary schools within the diocese.
In December, Murphy announced the additional schools that will close in June along with St. John Baptist de La Salle: St. Catherine of Sienna School in Franklin Square; Prince of Peace Regional School in Sayville; St. Ignatius Loyola School in Hicksville; Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Lindenhurst; and Sacred Heart School in North Merrick.
“Over the years, schools have closed individually, but when you have these one school closings without any system strategy across the Diocese, it makes it difficult for parents,” says Sean Dolan, spokesman for the Diocese. “In some cases people are wondering, ‘Is my school next?’ Bishop Murphy wanted to put together a strategic plan for Catholic education on Long Island, something that is sustainable for the future.”
With a more than 36-percent decrease in Catholic school enrollment over the past decade, changes were needed, he says.
“The pool of overall school-aged children is decreasing and will continue to decrease,” continues Dolan. “So whether you’re in a public school or a private school, that fact is going to impact you.”
He adds that the surviving schools are ready to “roll out the welcome mat” to the students in the closing schools, and that the goal is to make sure the displaced children wind up in another Catholic school.
Parents and students at the six schools still aren’t satisfied.
“They’re very successful schools. They’re well maintained and they produce some of the finest students on Long Island,” insisted Joe Cordero, father of a St. Catherine of Sienna student, as he stood outside on a snowy Saturday morning. “These schools are the foundations of our parishes and our neighborhoods, and we need to continue to operate them.”
Some parents have floated the idea that the closing Catholic schools could be run by independent religious orders, as has been done in at least four schools on LI in recent years. For example, St. Martin de Porres in Uniondale was taken over in 2004 by The Marianist Brothers, who run Chaminade High School in Mineola.
“We want to remain Diocesan Catholic schools,” Cordero said. “We just want to add a little input to help them work financially.”
Nassau County Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Elmont), a former Catholic school student and teacher, is concerned that the closures will create a domino effect on the struggling local economy.
“If this school closes, the local businesses—who are teetering on the brink of staying open or not—will also fail,” he said at the rally. “The average business along Hempstead Turnpike near the school pays $33,000 in taxes. If they fail, that burden will fall on other persons in the district, homeowners, residents, and they can’t afford that. They are overtaxed. It would adversely affect property values.”
For the students, the issue isn’t budgetary. All that matters is that they’re losing their schools and being separated from their friends. The night fourth grader Natalie Greulich found out St. John Baptist de La Salle was closing, she went home and wrote a letter to the one person she thought could help: Pope Benedict XVI.
“I’m really sad,” she said, as she warmed up in the backseat of her mother’s car. “My heart is broken.”