Published Online: February 26, 1997

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Without Abandonment

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Nonetheless, southeast Baltimore's Catholic schools faced the real threat of closure.

Enrollment at all of the schools has declined sharply in the past few years as some families moved to the suburbs and others found themselves unable to pay the more than $2,000 a year in tuition because of layoffs or other financial constraints.

Fresh from their work drawing up a holistic plan for the southeast region, however, several of the area's community leaders joined with some of the neighborhood's principals and archdiocesan officials in creating a plan for the parochial schools.

"We look at those Catholic schools and parishes, as well as the Protestant parishes, as anchors in our neighborhood," says Sister English, who also headed up the team that studied the area's Catholic schools. "We want to make sure there is a strong Catholic presence in this community. Otherwise, no one will move to it and stay in it when their kids get to be of school age."

Based on the recommendations, the archdiocese opted to close one school next fall: Holy Rosary, an elementary school where the enrollment was down to about 80 students in a school built for more than 500. The system's central office hopes to move a high school to the Holy Rosary building.

"You have the same kind of overhead whether you have 100 kids or 500 kids," says Donna Stadler, the principal at Holy Rosary. A member of the task force examining the southeast schools, Ms. Stadler found herself in the position of recommending herself out of her current post.

"We had to be able to divorce ourselves from any turf wars," she says. "We knew this was going to hurt, but we were doing it for the kids."

Ms. Stadler says she recognized early on that her building was better suited for a high school than an elementary school and that the area's only secondary parochial school had little room to grow.

Despite the one planned closure, many in the neighborhoods of southeast Baltimore consider themselves lucky.

"Under this study a lot of us didn't know if we would have jobs," Ms. Davis of Bishop Neumann says. "They did close one school. But how about if they had closed three? And they could have."

The archdiocese is now overseeing an effort to stabilize the financial position of the remaining schools while boosting their enrollments.

"We cannot in good conscience close the doors of these schools because that would be the worst possible consequence. It would indicate a retreat," says Bill Blaul, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "What we'd like to do is grow in the suburbs and maintain ourselves in the city."

To help the remaining five elementary schools, the archdiocese has offered to pay for a regional provost position to begin to implement their partial restructuring. The hope is to reduce operating costs by centralizing some financial responsibilities that traditionally each parish school has had to worry about itself, such as marketing and purchasing.

"In many ways, site-based management has been our own worst enemy," Mr. Blaul says. "You got to the point where site-based management was trying to swim upstream, and the current just got faster."

The archdiocese hopes to hire someone for the ad hoc provost position in a few weeks. Mr. Blaul expects the position to run for less than year, at which time the provost's responsibilities will transfer to a local board appointed by the archdiocese.

Although plans for the restructuring remain preliminary, archdiocesan officials and the principals say the hope is that the five schools can draw on each other's strengths to enhance their programs. Special education or foreign-language teachers, for example, could be shared among the schools.

The addition of day care to schools that don't now have it could also be a big draw to new parents, Mr. Blaul says.

"Right now we've been limited," Ms. Davis says. "We stay limited by staying with ourselves."

Along with centralizing many of the schools' financial responsibilities, the archdiocese is working to beef up their marketing. In recent weeks, the church's central office began investing in market research to find ways to bring in more parents.

"Historically, Catholic schools have always worked on the premise that they really didn't have to market," says Ronald J. Valenti, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "We just stood there, and people came to us."

The plan could lessen some of the waiting lists in the archdiocese's outlying areas by drawing parents who commute into the city for work. Mr. Blaul envisions using direct mailing and billboards near the highway exits near southeast Baltimore that might read, "A safe, affordable Catholic education is two blocks away."

These changes all represent a departure from the traditional management of Catholic schools, which depended only on their respective parishioners to provide students and financial support.

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