Catholic Free Press

Catholic Free Press Digital Edition

  • Jun
  • 22

Fitchburg’s St. Anthony parish school closing

Posted By June 22, 2017 | 12:08 pm | Lead Story #1
Holding their American flags, students at St. Anthony School  listen to one of their teachers talk about his service to his country and what it means to them during Catholic Schools Week in January. 
Photo by William T. Clew | CFP
Holding their American flags, students at St. Anthony School listen to one of their teachers talk about his service to his country and what it means to them during Catholic Schools Week in January. Photo by William T. Clew | CFP

By Tanya Connor
 The Catholic Free Press

St. Anthony Elementary School in Fitchburg is not re-opening next fall, according to those involved.
Among reasons they cited were decreased enrollment, financial difficulties, demographics and disgruntled families.
“It’s just really sad – (it’s) a good school,” said Delma L. Josephson, superintendent of schools.
“I think everything came together this year,” she said of the factors that led to this point. “A school doesn’t close in one year.”
Material she provided showed 147 students enrolled as of last October. Father Leo-Paul LeBlanc, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, said there were about the same number of students when the school year ended last Friday; some new students had enrolled during the year.
He said parents have had more than a month to enroll their children for next year. By June 11, he said, 27 students from 19 families had filled out paperwork, but only 12 of those students had paid the registration fee.
Although families said they would send their children next year, given the uncertainty about its future, many were reluctant to register them, Superintendent Josephson said.
“Without that actual commitment, a school would find it difficult, if not impossible, to move forward,” she explained.
She commented on the “great efforts” exerted for the school, saying that the pastor, principal, finance board, teachers, parishioners and families all wanted it to remain open.
“Because enrollment was so low, and, given our financial obligations, we had to have an urgent meeting with the finance committee of the parish” on June 11, Father LeBlanc said. “The parish has been subsidizing the school for years.… It’s quickly exhausting the resources of the parish to continue to support the school at the level we have been.” He declined to say on the record how much financial support that was.
After the June 11 meeting he recommended to Bishop McManus that the school close, he said, and Bishop McManus accepted the recommendation.
Mistakes were made, but “everybody acted according to their best judgment at the time,” Father LeBlanc said.
“As administrators and pastors, there are some things we cannot comment on,” he said. “We have a responsibility for confidentiality. And I know parents are hurting and it takes time to heal.”
Superintendent Josephson spoke of unhappy families who took their children out of the school during the year and complaints about poor communication and about the new principal.
John Diorio, who was principal from July 1, 2016 through the end of this academic year, came in after a well-loved, long-time teacher had been interim principal for a year, Father LeBlanc said.
Mr. Diorio brought in a new academic program that some people complained was remedial, Superintendent Josephson said. So Father John Daly, curriculum specialist for the Catholic Schools Office, carefully examined it and presented its strengths to parents.
“Change is always difficult,” she said. She said a good search committee recommended Mr. Diorio to Father LeBlanc.
When principals come to Catholic schools from public schools, as Mr. Diorio did, they have what they need to be good principals, but need help to be good Catholic-school principals, she said. She called Mr. Diorio “very capable, a good practicing Catholic,” but said “there’s an evolution that has to take place.”
Among complaints she received was that the pastor was teaching religion classes.
“And from our point of view – how wonderful,” she said. “I was a bit stunned. Who better?”
“I taught (religion) classes two days a week for one semester,” Father LeBlanc said. “That was my choice as pastor.” He said he also celebrated weekly Mass for the school whenever possible.
Responding to complaints about religious instruction, that were included in a Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise story, Father LeBlanc said, “It is not a ‘special’; religion is part of the curriculum.”
For many years they had a good religion teacher who incorporated art and paraliturgical experiences into her lessons, he said. She accepted a job offer elsewhere and her successor did not have the same gifts; every teacher has his or her own gifts.
When it looked like there would not be many students in the upper grades, families sought other options, Superintendent Josephson said. Those who find another option for their older children often move their younger children too, and the children’s friends want to go with them, she explained.
The enrollment drop led to attempts to shore up the school, Father LeBlanc said. Parents seemed receptive to a suggestion to limit the school to pre-kindergarten to grade 3, but enrollment was still too low. Parents were not receptive to the idea of combining grade levels for a “multi-age teaching environment,” which is being promoted in a number of schools, he said.
Enrollment is declining in many Catholic schools in the diocese, according to figures from Superintendent Josephson. She said public school enrollment in the Fitchburg area has also been declining.
She cited demographics as a reason for the decline in the area, as did St. Anthony’s teacher Lisa Crawley, who said there have been several surveys about that. A 1975 graduate of St. Anthony’s, she noted that Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph schools are now closed.
“No one wants to see a school close, especially one you went to and loved,” she said of St. Anthony’s, but added, “It’s been coming for awhile.” She said there’s been a steady decline in enrollment, which everyone was praying about.
“I’m very saddened by the whole situation,” she said. She said St. Anthony’s was a legacy in her family. Venerini Sisters helped start it and her cousin Sister Janet Badagliacca was one of the sisters who worked there. Mrs. Crawley sent her children there and taught there for 22 years.
“Thank God we have St. Bernard’s to continue Catholic education in Fitchburg,” she said. She said she’s happy that St. Bernard’s and Catholic schools in nearby towns will be thriving, as they gain St. Anthony’s students.
“All of our Catholic schools are warm and welcoming to these students,” Superintendent Josephson said. But she said St. Anthony’s will be missed; it was “an important part of the fabric of the greater Fitchburg community.”
If teachers or administrators in a closing school are well qualified for a position that is open in another Catholic school, the hiring school is asked to give them priority, she said.
Those who are certified are qualified to be hired by public schools, and those not certified are in the process of getting certified, she said.
She said that, depending on circumstances, administrators, teachers and staff of Catholic schools that close may be eligible for the transition assistance plan, the diocese’s version of unemployment insurance.
She spoke of options for continuing their group health benefits plan through COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), a government program. However, qualified individuals may be required to pay the entire premium for coverage, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.