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Queens Chronicle

Parents, Teachers Lash Out At Diocese Over School Closings

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Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005 12:00 am

Parents and teachers across Queens reacted angrily to the decision of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens to close or consolidate nine borough schools in June due to dwindling enrollment across the Catholic schools system.

The nine schools—St. Theresa’s in Woodside, Queen of Angels in Sunnyside, Ascension School in Elmhurst, St. Stanislaus in Ozone Park, Holy Cross in Maspeth, St. Pius X in Rosedale, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Astoria and St. Virgilius in Broad Channel—have decreased enrollment by more than 700 students in the last five years. Parents still criticized the diocese for its willingness to sacrifice neighborhood schools for a financial crisis.

“My faith has been tested, big time. Everyone says they’ve had it to the point where they will go to public schools. You don’t know who to trust anymore. We teach our children to be good people, but what happens when the people who taught them were not good people?” asked Pattie Shanahan, whose son attends the Holy Cross School in Maspeth.

All Catholic schools were given a grade determining their viability based on enrollment and financial health. Phase 1 schools were considered “at-risk” schools, Phase 2 were middling and Phase 3 schools were healthy. Monsignor Michael Hardiman has offered parents and teachers at some of the Phase 1 closing schools time to come up with a financial plan to keep the schools open for three to five years by raising enrollment, Diocesan spokesman Frank DeRosa said.

Parents and teachers held a meeting Monday night at Holy Cross. A similar meeting was held Tuesday night at St. Virgilius, which may, with Broad Channel’s unique location and demographics prove to be the largest community battleground against the closing.

There is only one public school in the island community and parents seeking a Catholic education will be forced to send their children to schools in the Rockaways or Howard Beach. The closest Catholic school, St. Camillus in Rockaway Beach, is two miles away.

The resistance is not just coming from outside the hallways. A young St. Virgilius student, unfamiliar with the papal process by which Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was appointed, asked, “Why did we elect him anyway?”

A teacher at Holy Cross, who wished to remain anonymous, said that teachers have “given up on the system in general.” She knows at least four teachers who were looking for new jobs before last week’s announcement.

Her students are also in shock. “They’ve written letters to Oprah, Derek Jeter and anyone else they look up to for help. I have all those letters and don’t know what to do with them,” she said.

Laraine Donohue, who was a member of the first graduating class of the School of the Ascension in Elmhurst, said her faith has been tested. “The charity they are supposed to have is going out the window. They don’t give a damn. They have no feeling for the people. They are sacrificing these people and these children at any cost.

“I’ve never lost my faith in God, and I never thought I’d lose faith in my priest. This is a travesty. This will divide the church. They are going to pay.”

Politicians reacted immediately to the announcement. Congressman Joseph Crowley was “deeply saddened” by the news. Crowley attended Power Memorial Academy High School in Manhattan, which was similarly closed in 1984. “Not only will countless students, teachers and longtime administrators and support staff be displaced, the schools that remain will be faced with the challenge of having to absorb multiple student bodies,” he said.

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who represents portions of both Brooklyn and Queens, lobbied the church to delay the closings. “The shutdown of these schools will leave many children devastated—and will leave many parents desperately trying to find alternatives,” she said.

Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. wants to provide tax credits for low-income families to attend private schools. He introduced a motion Friday to petition the state Legislature, which handles tax issues, to explore the topic. “We need to ensure their long-term survival by increasing enrollment,” he said.

Many critics blamed the school closings not just on low enrollment figures but on the large cash awards paid to settle priest sexual abuse cases over the last three years. The Dioceses of Brooklyn, New York and Rockville Centre have spent more than $14 million since 2002 to settle over 200 lawsuits in conjunction with priest abuse. The church paid $573 million in settlements nationwide between 1950 and 2002, according to a study by the John Jay College of Law.

“I really think the church has the money, but other problems have hit them for the money. And when you talk about the church with money, they don’t have a good track record,” Donohue said.

The announcement came during some schools’ Catholic Schools Week, which is dedicated to promoting Catholic education, but any reservoir of good will toward the bishop and the Vicar of Education, Hardiman, seems to have eroded. While Hardiman promised that any student whose school is affected by the “reorganization” will have a seat available to them next year, it is likely that some parents will leave the Catholic school system.

“The diocese and bishop have been lying since September, when they said the school won’t be closed. I can’t say my faith would bring me to another Catholic school,” Shanahan said.

All teachers who are in danger of losing their jobs have been offered participation in a job fair, but the Holy Cross teacher said the jobs being offered were mostly clerical positions within the diocese.

The diocese refuted a published report that it was in negotiations to lease nine of the school buildings to the Department of Education for public school use. Diocesan officials said the report was “without foundation.”

Laraine Donohue

ascension first grad class

“My immediate reaction was absolute sorrow and I was absolutely devastated.”

“I’m aggravated.

“They charity they are supposed to have is going out the window. They don’t give a damn. They have no feeling for the people. They are sacrificing these people and these children at any cost.“

“I’ve never lost my faith in God, and I never thought I’d lose faith in my priest. This is a travesty. This will divide the church. They are going to pay.”

Pattie Shanahan

holy cross

“We were never told that this was a possibility. Around mid-October we realized they had intentions. We did anything and everyting we could do to raise money and raise enrollment.”

“They’re breaking up a family at this school. Through the biggest of tragedies, the children have been here.”

“My faith has been tested, big time. Everyone says they’ve had it to the point where tghey will go to public schools. You don’t know who to trust any more. The Diocese and Bishop have been lying since September. I can’t say my faith would bring me to another Catholic school.”

will go into public schools

“But is that what they want to happen, so they can close more schools? Is this what it’s come to?”

“We teach them to be good people, but what happens when the people who taught them were not good people?”

“When a school has a fighting chance they deserve that consideration.”

Marysia Welnicki

Holy Cross Teacher

“They’ve been stringing us along all year long while we’ve been sitting on pins and needles, because we were the only school that knew we were in danger. The others knew nothing until they got the letter.”

“The finances don’t add up in this parish. In other schools, there is $175,000 in debt after four years. In this parish, it’s $350,000 after two years. We hold fundraiser after fundraiser, but where does the money go?”

“Many of us have given up on the system in general. I can think of at least four teachers who were looking for jobs before the announcement.”

job fair “very insulting”

“I do not believe I could do the things I have done in this life without a Catholic education.”

“They’ve written letters to Oprah, Derek Jeter and anyone else they looked up to for help. I have all those letters and don’t know what to do with them.”

Welcome to the discussion.