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Sweeping changes in Catholic education to be unveiled this month will affect elementary schools across Western New York, including those in suburbs like Amherst, Lancaster, Orchard Park and Hamburg.

Catholic school officials say they are in the midst of the broadest and most intensive review ever of elementary education in the eight counties of the Diocese of Buffalo. And that means schools will be closed or merged.

The closures are expected to extend further than what occurred in the past decade, when more than two dozen schools closed.

That’s because of almost-universal enrollment declines in area schools and bleak demographic trends going forward.

So it’s no longer just struggling schools at parishes of modest means and aging congregations, in Buffalo or the inner-ring suburbs, likely to be touched by the downsizing plan.

To understand why Catholic elementary education stands at a crossroads in Western New York, look at the enrollment for about any Catholic school.

St. Benedict School in Eggertsville, for example, enrolled 251 students a decade ago. Enrollment fell to 139 students in 2012-13.

“You don’t have a lot of younger Catholics moving into the area,” said Mike Florczak, whose daughter attends St. Benedict and whose son graduated from the school.

The trend extends beyond St. Benedict. Four other Catholic schools within three miles of St. Benedict also report dwindling enrollments. In some cases, the declines are precipitous, putting a strain on parish finances.

In seven Catholic schools in Amherst, the area’s largest suburb and one of the few that is still growing, combined enrollments dropped by 342 pupils, or 17 percent, during the decade, according to figures from the state Education Department.

Across Erie County, enrollment in kindergarten through eighth grade in Catholic schools fell by 5,711 students, or 41 percent, since 2003-04.

Of 42 Catholic schools in the county open during the 2012-13 school year, only seven had larger enrollments than a decade earlier. Just one – St. Mark in North Buffalo – added more than 100 pupils.

But enrollments fell by more than 100 at nine of the schools.

Overall, Catholic school buildings operate at just 68 percent of capacity.

“It’s become clear with the schools, as with the parishes, it just can’t be business as usual anymore,” said Bishop Richard J. Malone, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

Stressing the urgency

While diocesan officials say they want to revitalize Catholic education by maximizing the use of school buildings and combining resources, parents are bracing for what likely will be a tumultuous consolidation of 51 schools in eight counties. Some pastors worry the changes could devastate parishes losing their schools.

Instead of closing only the most fiscally stressed schools, planners say they’re taking a more strategic approach to mergers this time around, with an eye toward creating “community” Catholic schools, instead of parish schools.

Remnants of the parochial-school model – in which hundreds of thousands of Catholic elementary school children were educated over the decades in Western New York – could soon be gone.

Malone, who has final say over which schools remain open and which ones close, said the changes must happen, and quickly, to keep Catholic education alive and strong in a region with upward of 600,000 Catholics.

“Some people appreciate the urgency of this, and some people are very resistant to it,” the bishop said.

The ideal enrollment

In the fall, pastors and principals from Catholic schools grouped into clusters met for several months to talk about how to reconfigure buildings, share resources and upgrade programs in their respective geographic areas to stabilize enrollments and put schools on more solid footing.

The nine groups then submitted their ideas in November to Carol Kostyniak, secretary of Catholic education for the diocese.

The diocese did not give the groups a specific target as far as how many schools should remain open in their particular areas.

Diocesan officials decline to say how many schools are likely to close.

But pastors and principals were asked to consider several guidelines, including financial benchmarks spelling out the ideal balance of school revenues: 60 percent from tuition and fees; no more than 25 percent from a parish subsidy; and 15 percent from fundraising.

The diocese advised parishes not to spend more than 40 percent of their total collections for a school.

“If they’re healthy schools and they’re meeting the benchmarks, we’re not going to close them,” Kostyniak said.

The groups also were told to examine all of the school buildings in their cluster and determine which ones could house an “ideal” enrollment of 400 students, with space for a gym, science labs, a cafeteria and art and music rooms.

At present, the enrollments of just five Catholic schools meet the threshold of at least 400 pupils: St. Amelia and St. Christopher in the Town of Tonawanda; St. Mark and Notre Dame Academy in Buffalo; and St. Gregory the Great in Amherst.

The make or break point for most schools is 180 to 200 students, and 26 Catholic schools in Erie County have enrollments of 200 or less.

Tough demographics

Enrollments are expected to keep shrinking, because demographic data shows fewer women of childbearing age in the region.

“The average family size today is one point eight. A couple years ago it was three, and it keeps going down,” Kostyniak said. “That’s the reality of where we are.”

Kostyniak pointed out that the enrollments in the 29 public school districts in Erie County declined an estimated 10,000 in the past five years.

“When you look at the percentages, we’re right in the same ballpark,” she said. “Every diocese is going through it, just like every public school district is going through it.”

Catholic elementary education has struggled nationally, as well. In 2002-03, some 1.9 million students were enrolled in Catholic schools from prekindergarten through eighth grade. Enrollment nationwide fell to 1.4 million in 2012-13 – a drop of about 25 percent.

This reality does not make matters any easier for area parents waiting to learn the fate of their schools.

“When it comes to your children and education, people put a lot of emotional energy into it,” said Sean Spiesz, who has two children in St. Bernadette School in Orchard Park and is part of the school advisory board.

Like most parents, Spiesz understands something has to be done to sustain Catholic education into the future.

“I appreciate that the demographics are changing,” he said.

But Spiesz worries about lingering resentment among some Catholics about how the “Journey in Faith & Grace” initiative – a massive restructuring of parishes that resulted in nearly 100 churches closing – unfolded a few years ago.

“People still feel that’s not that long ago. People remember it,” he said. “I can see where people would be cynical.”

Effect on parishes

No one knows exactly how the merging of schools would be managed, which teachers and principals would be kept or what new identities would be created for community schools bringing together students from parish schools.

“That’s what drives the anxiety for some folks. It’s that uncertainty,” Spiesz said. “The planning versus the execution are two separate things.”

The Rev. Paul Seil, pastor of St. Bernadette Church, expressed concern about the future of parishes that lose schools, because so much of the vibrancy of a congregation comes from ties to its school.

“The people in the school by and large are very involved in the life of the parish,” Seil said.

If the school were to close, Seil fears many families would simply switch parishes and become members of the church where a school remains.

In most parishes with schools, the school is the single largest expense, by far. Despite the cost, the congregation at St. Bernadette favors keeping the school.

“They feel it’s that important. It is a financial burden on the parish, and yet when we look at the people involved in the church because of the school, it’s substantial,” Seil said.

Other pastors also said they worry about the future vibrancy of parishes that lose schools.

“Catholic schools contribute to the vitality of a parish. They are a significant part of parish life,” said Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo Church in Amherst.

St. Leo has had a school since its founding 60 years ago.

At Fourteen Holy Helpers Church in West Seneca, where the school has been around 149 years, the first teacher arrived before the founding pastor of the parish, said the Rev. David Bellittiere, the current pastor.

The parish community always has rallied around the school.

“When you send a child to a Catholic school, there’s a great commitment. Not only are you sending your child, you’re spending your time to keep the school going. And when you have that type of commitment it ties you to the school even more,” Bellittiere said. “It’s very much like a family.”

But most parishes do not have schools, and with fewer priests available, parishes increasingly will be asked to collaborate with each other in other areas, as well.

“Parishes always will be the center of life for Catholics. But we’re adapting in many different ways to changing circumstances,” said Zapfel, the St. Leo pastor. “In order for parishes to stay viable, we’re going to have to share ministries more and more.”

The school presence

Diocesan officials acknowledge that the new approach to schools, as well as other aspects of parish life, will come as something of a culture shock to many Catholics.

“The church has done a great job over the decades of imbedding a real parish identity, a parish loyalty, in people’s minds and hearts,” Malone said. “That was a good thing, but it also becomes a challenge now when we invite people to consider the church in a broader way.”

Diocesan school officials said consolidated community or regional schools will have to come with new governance models, including boards of limited jurisdiction consisting of members of all of the former schools that come together as one.

New names and identities also might be appropriate, as in the case of merged parishes that adopted new names for their consolidated congregations.

Ultimately, priests and other parish leaders will have to convince church members the schools are still important, even if the building on their church campus is no longer being used in that fashion.

“That goes back to the finesse of the pastor to say: ‘This is still our school, even though maybe it’s not across the parking lot,’ ” said the Rev. Leon Biernat, pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii in Lancaster. “You want to keep the school presence in all of our parishes.”

Stemming the decline

Some parents appear to be open to the concept of community Catholic schools, as long they are academically rigorous, sustainable and continue to impart Catholic values.

The diocese shut down schools in bunches before – 14 in 2007, mostly in Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Tonawanda – but the closures did little to stem enrollment declines at the schools that remained open.

With 486 students in 2003-04, St. Andrew’s Country Day School in the Town of Tonawanda operated as the second-largest Catholic elementary school in Western New York.

By the 2012-13 school year, enrollment fell to 190 – a 61 percent drop – even though four nearby schools closed over that time and some of their students enrolled at St. Andrew’s. No other Catholic school in Erie County experienced as steep an enrollment drop over the decade as St. Andrew’s.

“There’s just so many Catholic elementary schools. They’re all pulling from a population that isn’t as big as it used to be,” said Andrea Foglia, who has three children at St. Andrew’s. “As hard as it will be, it is the right step for the diocese to take.”

South Buffalo model

Diocesan officials hope a more strategic approach this time will lead to growing schools.

They point to Notre Dame Academy in South Buffalo as an example of how future community schools might look.

Located in the former St. Martin of Tours School on Abbott Road, Notre Dame was initially an amalgamation of closed schools at St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Martin of Tours and St. Bonaventure.

In 2013, Ambrose Catholic Academy on Okell Street and Trinity Catholic Academy on Hayden Street closed, and their students from prekindergarten to eighth grade were invited to attend Notre Dame Academy. Trinity was a regional school formed in 2004 following the closure of parish schools at St. Agatha, Holy Family and St. Teresa.

A decade ago, 1,330 students were enrolled in six Catholic schools in South Buffalo, traditionally a heavily Catholic area of the city.

But three of the schools had enrollments of 135 or less. Six merged into three. Still, enrollments continued to decline, so the diocese opted to establish a single school for 2013-14, with a student population of 495.

Next year, Notre Dame anticipates adding another 100 students, filling its buildings.

The school upgraded its facilities, offered more advanced courses and provided after-school enrichment programs and tutoring until 6 p.m. – extras that would not have been possible in a smaller school.

“In this world there is no stasis. You change or you die. That’s why when we look at these closings and consolidations, we have to look at new programs,” said Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic schools.

Addressing problems

Can the Catholic schools survive financially?

The odds are stacked against them. Most schools charge tuition of about $3,000 per student. That does not cover the cost of educating a child, around $5,500 to $6,000.

Some cost-conscious parents choose to send their kids to public schools in high-performing districts where they already pay large property tax bills.

Most Catholic schools offer financial aid, but not enough for some parents.

“Sometimes families have said, ‘We just can’t do it anymore,’ ” Bellittiere said.

Diocesan officials also expect schools will have to pay more to teachers, many of whom earn less than half of what teachers in public schools make.

On top of that, Mass collections have eroded in many churches, making it harder to support the schools.

Some parents wonder why the diocese did not act sooner to ensure the long-term viability of Catholic schools.

A group of Amherst parents proposed establishing a single centralized school for Amherst Catholics years ago, but the idea did not gain traction, said Florczak, the St. Benedict parent.

The school could have been run like Catholic high schools such as St. Joseph Collegiate Institute or Canisius High School, which have independent boards and professional leadership.

Instead, the Amherst elementary schools battled over a continually shrinking pool of students.

“It’s like we’re competing against our faith. We’re all supposedly trying to offer Catholic education,” said Florczak. “We should’ve been talking about this in 2002. Now, we’re stuck. To me, the problem has festered for way too long.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com