By Richard J. Malone
January’s announcement that 10 Catholic elementary schools in Erie County would close has caused a great deal of consternation and, in some quarters, anger. I certainly understand the response, and I am sorry that it has disrupted the lives of some of our school families.
This decision was the culmination of several years of objective, painstaking, collaborative work, done mostly by the laity, and was clearly articulated among the goals with the June 2011 launch of “Faith in Tomorrow,” the strategic plan for Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Buffalo.
In 2008, Meitler, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm that has advised dioceses across the nation, studied Catholic schools in Western New York and found too many school buildings operating well below capacity. That finding was validated in 2010 and 2013 when Verdi & Associates of Buffalo studied the demographics of the region and reached the same conclusion. Coupled with a 25 percent decline in baptisms over the past seven years, it became painfully evident that in order to strengthen our schools while maintaining and upgrading facilities to 21st century standards, closings were necessary.
Is the plan perfect? Of course not, but plans of this sort rarely achieve acclamation. The closing of 10 schools will impact about 1,000 students. To date, 639 have already registered at neighboring Catholic schools, and we fully expect that number to increase right up to the opening of the school year.
What the diocese is doing is no different from what is happening in public school districts across the region and the state. Recognizing smaller family size, demographic and financial projections, we had to look to a more regional approach. To do nothing would have been irresponsible.
What’s next? The Department of Catholic Schools is implementing STREAM, (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Art, Math), which will become the focal point of our curriculum. STREAM will engage students at an early age in the study of robotics, architecture, space exploration, technical design and other subjects, all encompassed by a foundation based on Catholic faith and values.
We are empowering school parents through the newly formed Buffalo Diocesan Federation of Home-School Associations, which is coordinating fund-raising, providing direction for effective HSAs and engaging in grass-roots advocacy.
In the end, we are creating a scenario where the remaining Catholic schools will be stronger and more stable, with increased enrollment and even stronger academics, while maintaining our primary focus of educating children to reach their full potential in an atmosphere rooted in Catholic tradition and Gospel values.
The Most Rev. Richard J. Malone is bishop of Buffalo.