ADVERTISEMENT

Ten elementary Catholic school closings will be announced today as part of a sweeping effort to overhaul Catholic education in Western New York, ending months of anxious waiting and speculation about which schools will accept students for the 2014-15 academic year.

Click here for a complete list of the schools the Catholic Diocese is planning to close.

Parents of students at Fourteen Holy Helpers School in West Seneca learned through an automated phone call at 12:45 p.m. today that it will be closed.

Our Lady of Sacred Heart School in Orchard Park is also closing, according to Channel 4 on its website. Channel 2 reported that St. Francis of Assisi School in Tonawanda is on the list of schools to be closed.

Officials from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo will reveal the full list of closures to school principals and pastors today. It will available at buffalonews.com at 3:30 p.m.

Parents are being informed of the changes in letters sent home with their children.

Catholic schools across Western New York, even in the area’s most affluent suburbs, are expected to be affected because of ongoing declines in enrollment and bleak demographic projections.

“We’re making the best choices we can,” said Carol Kostyniak, the diocese’s secretary for Catholic education. “We would keep every building open if we could, but it would be irresponsible to do that.”

Across Erie County, enrollment in kindergarten through eighth grade in Catholic schools fell by 5,711 students, or 41 percent, between 2003 and 2013. Nearly two-thirds of the schools enrolled 200 or fewer students. Enrollments at six schools shrunk by more than half over that time – even as two dozen other Catholic schools closed.

Despite the past closings, the diocese still has too many school buildings operating below capacity and parishes spending beyond their means on elementary schools, diocese officials said.

“We’re subsidizing at a rate of $13.8 million per year to elementary education. If we do nothing, that figure is going to go to $18 million in five years, and we can’t sustain that,” Kostyniak said.

Bishop Richard J. Malone and other diocesan officials now hope that a more strategic pruning of the remaining 51 Catholic elementary schools in eight counties will revitalize Catholic education and spur future enrollment growth.

Nonetheless, as with the prior school closings and dozens of parish closures a few years ago, the shuttering of school buildings will likely arouse anger and disappointment among Catholic students and parents with deep bonds to their schools.

The closings also could set off a frenzied search for new academic homes for displaced students, similar to 2007, when the diocese announced 14 school closures.

“A lot of parents are very concerned: Where is my child going to go to school next year?” Kostyniak said.

Catholic school officials said decisions this time around will be more strategic and organized, with community and regional schools being created to ensure that a Catholic education will be available for anyone who wants it.

The prospect of a restructuring and consolidation of schools has been on the table since 2011, when a study found that area Catholic schools competed fiercely against each other for a rapidly shrinking pool of potential students.

The diocese began moving forward on a restructure following the hiring last June of Sister Carol Cimino as superintendent of Catholic schools.

This past fall, pastors and principals met for months in one of nine “clusters” to discuss how to reconfigure buildings, share resources and upgrade programs in their respective geographic areas.

For example, Fourteen Holy Helpers and Queen of Heaven schools in West Seneca formed a cluster with St. John Vianney School in Orchard Park.

In Amherst and Clarence, seven schools formed a cluster: Christ the King, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, SS. Peter & Paul, St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great, St. Leo the Great and St. Mary.

And in the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island, another cluster consisted of six schools – St. Amelia, St. Andrew’s Country Day, St. Christopher, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen.

The clusters submitted their ideas to Kostyniak and Cimino, who analyzed them and provided recommendations to Malone. The bishop said he will make the final decision about school closings.

Cimino and Kostyniak said schools that are doing well financially, academically and enrollment-wise will not be forced to close.

But even the most successful schools were included in the broadest and most intensive review ever of Catholic elementary education in the diocese, Cimino said.

Along with the closures, school officials plan to expand and strengthen programs in the remaining schools, including introducing a new curriculum model known as STREAM – emphasizing science, technology, religion, engineering, arts and math.

“We are going to do it right,” Kostyniak said. “What are we learning in school that’s going to make us better citizens down the road? That’s what we’re about.”

Spending fewer resources on maintaining buildings and having more students in fewer schools will allow those schools to add Advanced Placement courses and expand after-school and extracurricular offerings, Cimino said.

Diocesan officials anticipate most students enrolled in schools slated for closure will end up in another Catholic school next fall.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com