When Bishop Richard J. Malone announced last week that 10 Catholic elementary schools would close at the end of the academic year, not one of the affected schools was in the City of Buffalo. What kept them off the list?
The possibility of students seeking transfers out of failing city public schools and ending up in Catholic classrooms encouraged diocesan educators to keep open their five elementary schools in Buffalo.
In addition, the diocese wants to continue its mission of offering education in low income neighborhoods, and the city was hit hard by prior waves of Catholic school closings.
It appears that discussions involving diocesan officials, the Bison Fund, which provides scholarships for kids to attend private schools, and the John R. Oishei Foundation played at least a role in keeping the Catholic city schools open.
Malone said new tuition assistance may become available through the private Bison Fund, creating an opportunity for more students to transfer out of public schools.
“The possible infusion of new students into our schools will allow us to keep open all Catholic schools in the city of Buffalo,” he said.
Malone sounded confident that additional scholarship money will materialize – although the source of the funding for the extra tuition aid is still unclear.
The bishop also made it clear that the decision to keep Catholic schools in Buffalo open didn’t hinge entirely on the promise of a scholarship deal, and other factors were considered.
Since 2007, the diocese closed seven school buildings in the city, and many more had been shut down before then.
Of those remaining, St. Mark School near Delaware Park and Notre Dame Academy in South Buffalo are both full or nearly full, so any scholarship transfer deal would have little impact on them.
In addition, some of the city schools serve large numbers of children from low-income families, and school officials said they want to ensure that Catholic education isn’t out of their reach.
Our Lady of Black Rock School near Grant and Amherst streets, for example, has a small enrollment, about 117 children, but the number has been relatively stable, and more than three-quarters of students there fall under federal poverty guidelines.
Catholic social teaching on poverty includes what is called a “preferential option for the poor,” and Malone said Catholics have a moral duty to provide programs and services that assist people of limited means.
“We have a mission to those kids, to educate them,” added Carol A. Kostyniak, diocesan secretary for Catholic education.
The Oishei Foundation, the area’s largest private foundation that makes millions of dollars in grants annually, also has been involved in conversations with the diocese and the Bison Fund.
But Blythe T. Merrill, the foundation’s vice president, described those discussions as “preliminary.”
“Oishei does lots of work in the education arena,” Merrill said. “We are exploring an opportunity as a community partner.”
Oishei provided $390,000 to the Bison Fund in 2012, according to its annual report.
Merrill declined to elaborate on the status of any talks or on exactly who is at the table.
“The conversations between us have been good. They’re just preliminary,” added Amy Popadick, executive director of the Bison Fund. “We always are looking for ways to help the most children in Western New York.”
Popadick also would not reveal details about the discussions.
Parents have asked for transfers out of low-performing city schools for 2,200 Buffalo public school kids, but the Buffalo Public School District can’t accommodate all the requests.
Meanwhile, Catholic schools in the city have room for about 250 transfer students, said Kostyniak.
The Bison Fund already gives scholarships to about 1,750 children attending Catholic schools.