Catholic Free Press

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Mercy Centre to end school program

Posted By December 12, 2013 | 12:49 pm | Lead Story #1

By William T. Clew

The school program at the Mercy Centre will close in June, the end of the school year, because of decreasing enrollment.
The adult program will continue and expand, Catherine Loeffler, director of Catholic Charities Worcester County, said Wednesday.
The Mercy Centre provides special education for children ages 6 to 22 with intellectual disabilities, and training and employment programs for adults with intellectual disabilities who are 22 and older.
In January 2014, there will be 113 enrolled in the adult program, but only 14 students enrolled in the school program. There were 35 students eight years ago and 54 students 10 years ago, Ms. Loeffler said.
“Over the last decade the adult program has flourished and today provides a variety of services in addition to job training and placement to 113 adults,” she said. “Mercy Centre’s School Program, in contrast, has experienced a steady decline in enrollment over the past 10 years and almost closed eight years ago.
“This academic year, the school did not enroll any new students, nor does it anticipate any new enrollments in the foreseeable future. This has forced the Mercy Centre administrator along with Catholic Charities senior staff and its board of directors to make this difficult decision,” Ms. Loeffler said.
She said the decision to close the school program in June was made Dec. 2 after a recommendation from Heather A. MacDonald, Mercy Centre administrator, and a vote by the Catholic Charities senior staff and the board of directors.
“Having spent many years working at Mercy Centre, the students have always had a special place in my heart.  This has been a painful recommendation to make, yet I’m convinced it is in the best interest of the students.  Everyone involved has given it their best effort,”  Ms. MacDonald said.
“I am grateful to the Sisters of Mercy and Catholic Charities for their more than 50 years of providing a school program for students with intellectual disabilities, particularly for the many decades when there were no options. I also want to express my appreciation to the Emerald Club and the Friends of Mercy who, along with Catholic Charities, have worked tirelessly over these past eight years to try to keep the school program as an option among the school choices available today,” Bishop McManus said.
There is never a good time “to share or receive this difficult news especially at this time of year,” Ms. Loeffler said. “Nevertheless parents and school staff need to have the information quickly so that they have additional time to prepare for the transition this coming June.
“Mercy Centre will designate staff to assist families as they transition to new school programs and work with their respective nine public school districts which are all outside the city of Worcester.”
She said parents were notified this week. Twenty-four staff members will lose their jobs, she said. Catholic Charities has told them it will honor its employment agreement through the end of the school year in June.
“This decision is clearly a painful one for all who have been involved with Mercy Centre. The students at Mercy have always held a special place in the hearts of those who have dedicated much of their lives in helping them. As a licensed school, we must comply with rigorous regulations which are in place for the good of the students,” she said.
“This is not an isolated day-care or tutoring program. Specially licensed teachers, various therapists, etc. must be employed to meet all the demands of each student’s individualized educational plan. There are not enough students to efficiently and adequately use the staff needed. Given all the realities of the situation, it is important yet painful to acknowledge that what made Mercy Centre special all the years can no longer be assured.”
She said the students in the school program come from nine towns outside Worcester, some as much as an hour away. No student has come from Worcester in the last 20 years, she said.
Tuition, paid by the school district which serves the town in which the student lives, is $84,000 a year, she said. But it does not cover the full cost. Catholic Charities has subsidized the school program by more than $100,000 a year.
“Given the breadth of Catholic Charities programs which serve 48,000 people every year throughout Worcester County and the great demand for assistance in this economy, those subsidies need to be directed to areas including Mercy Centre adult services, homeless prevention, elder services, and support/shelter for homeless families,” Ms. Loeffler said.
“While I am saddened by the reality of the school program needing to cease operations in June, I thank God that there will be a greater commitment to serve the needs of a growing number of adult clients at Mercy Centre with job training, day programs and other services,” Bishop McManus said.
There was a move to close the school in 2006. An independent review panel confirmed that enrollment was down significantly and that the additional expenses were not sustainable for Catholic Charities, Ms. Loeffler said.
Parents and others protested the proposed closing. Parents formed a group called The Friends of Mercy Centre, Inc., to raise money for operations and to recruit students for the school program. The Emerald Club, which had been supporting the Mercy Centre, said it would raise funds for operations for five years.
“Despite these combined best efforts, enrollment continued to decline,” she said.
“Despite a communications and networking push to recruit more students, it has seen the fewest number of new students in the past few years, with no new students in over a year. From 2006 to November 2013, the Mercy Centre School Program has received inquiries for possible enrollment for 134 individual students from 45 separate school districts, (22 districts within Worcester County and 23 districts outside Worcester County, of which three were in Connecticut).
“These inquiries led to only 20 new student enrollments.  Of the 20 new students, nine terminated prior to graduation. The terminations occurred because five students moved to residential placement, two students returned to the public school, one student moved to home schooling, and one student was discharged for a more behavioral setting.  Thus, the rate of adding new students has not been able to offset the rate of attrition.”
The Mercy Centre was founded by the Sisters of Mercy. Bishop John J. Wright proposed a school for those who were called “exceptional children” soon after the diocese was formed in 1950. But the Worcester tornado in 1953 delayed the project.
In 1958 the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation gave the diocese $560,000, of which $360,000 was to be used to establish a school for educable “exceptional children.” The next year the Sisters of Mercy bought 30 acres, part of the Brooks farm as the site of the Kennedy Memorial School.
Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan, accompanied by Edward M. Kennedy, president of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation and later U.S. senator from Massachusetts, broke ground for the school on Oct. 23, 1959. The school, opened on Sept. 11, 1961 and on Sept. 17  dedication ceremonies for the new school building were held.
The school was staffed  by the Sisters of Mercy under the auspices of the diocesan Catholic Charities. Eight Sisters made up the staff. In 1972, after the Centre had become more than a school, its name was changed to the Mercy Centre for Developmental Disabilities.
As the number of Sisters of Mercy diminished, more lay people staffed the center. The staff now is entirely lay people.