St. Virgilius School in Broad Channel, one of nine borough schools slated to close in a reorganization plan by the Catholic Schools system, will stay open through at least 2010 after the Diocese of Brooklyn approved its five-year business plan on Wednesday.
Principal Diane Phelan received the phone call at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and sent her students off to Easter break knowing that their school was saved. “I’m very happy for the children, parents and the community. They needed to have this school here. This is good news all the way around.”
John Spataro, the attorney who drafted the business plan with community help, said he was “ecstatic, and the kids are ecstatic. Now comes the real work in implementing the plan, but we cleared a hurdle. We will step up and do what we need to do.”
Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr., who gave an impassioned speech at a Broad Channel town meeting about the importance of the school, noted that the island’s geography made St. Virgilius’ reprieve necessary.
“No other school has as unique a situation as St. Virgilius. If the school closed, parents could be separated from their child during an emergency, and that was cause for concern. I’m very happy for the residents,” he said.
Parents and teachers at Catholic schools across the borough had been waiting to hear from the Diocese of Brooklyn, which will determine whether “business plans” they submitted will bring in sufficient resources to allow the schools to stay open. St. Virgilius’ business plan includes bus service to and from the island and a scholarship fund to defray tuition costs.
At press time, only St. Finbar’s and St. Stephen’s Schools in Brooklyn had also earned a reprieve.
The diocese, which set varying deadlines for the business plans earlier this month, had not set a timetable for informing the schools whether they will be open next year. Now, some parents are clinging to the hope that their last-ditch efforts will save the schools, while others are already celebrating.
The diocese announced on Ash Wednesday, February 9th, that it planned to “reorganize” its school system. Twenty-two schools in the city, nine of them in Queens, were set to close. The schools—St. Theresa’s in Woodside, Queen of Angels in Sunnyside, Blessed Mary Virgin Help of Christians in Woodside, 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—were chosen due to low enrollment and mounting debt.
Monsignor Michael Hardiman, the diocese’s vicar for education, said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio had “reluctantly” accepted the proposal to close the schools. “Our goal is to have a parochial school presence in every part of the diocese, if that is at all possible. This is the best reconfiguration of the schools at this time,” Hardiman said.
The announcement came in the middle of Catholic School Week, during which the schools celebrate Catholic education, and triggered outrage among parents and teachers who said the diocese assured them that their schools would not be closing. One teacher at Holy Cross, who asked that her name not be used, said that faculty members there had “given up on the system in general.”
Registration deadlines for the 2005-2006 school year were originally extended by one week to account for the closings, but schools are now on hold as they await the diocese’s decision. Hardiman said that any student whose school is affected by the reorganization will have a seat available to them within the school system in the fall.
The diocese gave all schools within the system 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. Some of the Phase 1 schools, including St. Virgilius and Holy Cross, were given opportunities to submit business plans after community members and politicians argued that the schools would be able to restore their financial health on their own.
At Holy Cross, the effort to raise funds and increase enrollment involved an Internet campaign, and the staff sent more than 1,400 letters to alumni and local businesses encouraging them to donate to their cause. Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. of Astoria has introduced a motion to petition the state Legislature to offer tax credits to attend private schools, but the measure could not be passed in time to help the schools that were in danger this year. With tax credits, Holy Cross Pastor Peter Zendzian said the school could easily afford to stay open.
The diocese did not offer St. Stanislaus School in Ozone Park the opportunity to create a business plan, but one was created anyway. Adrian Dial, a real estate agent and parent of children at the school, developed a plan that would involve building homes on an adjacent parking lot and renting some out as apartments to raise money. He pledged not to give up if the plan, which he submitted directly to Hardiman, is rejected.