Catholics chart course for schools Education: With enrollment and funds declining, the archdiocese is studying six Southeast Baltimore parish schools to see what they should do.

September 08, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

The hulking, four-story Holy Rosary School stands as a monument to another time.

To the days when Catholic children spilled from its 20 classrooms, crowded its broad hallways -- always in straight lines, of course -- and overflowed its auditorium. To the time when stern nuns supervised the school, and a bustling parish footed the bill for educating its own.

Holy Rosary, in the Fells Point area, is quieter now. Smaller and poorer, too.

Only 77 youngsters began the academic year in grades one to eight; the school can accommodate 600. Only four classrooms are in full use, only four full-time teachers are on the payroll.

The South Chester Street school, burdened with shrinking enrollment and a strapped budget, is a victim of urban flight and changing economics in the city's older neighborhoods and parishes. And now the Archdiocese of Baltimore, seeking to maintain a Catholic presence without duplicating costly services and facilities, is scrutinizing the school and five others in southeastern neighborhoods -- a study that could lead to closings or mergers.

"We're all kind of nervous," says Dick Gatto, who faces the same problems as principal of 165-student St. Elizabeth School on Lakewood Avenue, across Patterson Park from Holy Rosary and another school in the study.

The other schools are: Bishop John Neumann on Foster Avenue, Father Kolbe on South Kenwood Avenue, Our Lady of Fatima on East Pratt Street and Our Lady of Pompei on South Conkling Street.

Although enrollment is up slightly at Kolbe this year, the six schools have fewer than 1,500 students in buildings that can accommodate twice as many.

"I don't know why more people don't want to come here. It's a nice school," says Holy Rosary Principal Donna M. Stadler.

But the streets around Holy Rosary are no longer home to hundreds of Polish Catholic families. Though the parish has 950 families, "they are spread out all over Maryland, and the families with children are in the suburbs," says Holy Rosary's pastor, the Rev. Ronald P. Pytel, who graduated from the school in 1961.

Then, there were about 800 students, as many as three sections of some grades and 28 nuns, he recalls. "It was 100 percent parishioners; we didn't have room for anyone else."

Now, the majority of Holy Rosary students are not parish members; some are non-Catholic students from the area, others are Catholics from other parishes. The four nuns who live in the convent work elsewhere, and many parishioners are older and do not have school-age children.

Though the small enrollment is a burden, it carries some benefits.

"The programs are designed to meet the needs of the individual student, and the small classes make that feasible and successful," Stadler says. "If a student who is in the fifth grade is more astute, say in math, he or she is placed in a higher level."

Even putting two grades together has had benefits -- reading skills among last year's first-graders improved so much that Stadler had to get more challenging social studies texts for them now they are in second grade.

"They are learning very well. All the stuff they need is there," says Michael Polek, who has a son in fifth grade and a granddaughter in second. Polek, a Holy Rosary graduate and president of its parent group, the Home-School Association, credits Stadler with improving education at the school.

"With Donna at the helm, I can only see improvement," he says.

Third-graders Jamere Gainers and Ericka Gray like being with the fourth-graders. "It's nice," says Ericka, making words from random syllables in an exercise.

Both girls transferred to Holy Rosary last year and say they prefer it to their former parochial school.

Last year Holy Rosary had 111 students, including 10 kindergartners and 15 graduates. Stadler had to close the kindergarten when only two youngsters registered in the spring.

Enrollment declined, she says, because of a $700-a-year tuition increase and because some families lost faith in the parish's commitment to the school -- despite what Pytel calls significant subsidies now beyond the parish's means.

"Our goal for this year was 80. We probably will have met, and exceeded that, in the next week or so. We could take 36 to 40 more in grades three to eight," without increasing staff, says Stadler, Holy Rosary's first lay principal. "We have plenty of room."

Holy Rosary has the problem of too much space. It has a music room, computer center, science lab, study hall, chapel and a room where fitness classes will meet. And still the 45-year-old building has empty classrooms.

The tuition increase, from $1,500 to $2,200, was triggered by the shrinking number of students and the fact that "the tuition was ridiculously low," says Stadler. "In prekindergarten and kindergarten, the number of students didn't even pay for the teacher's salary."

When Stadler was hired as principal in 1994, the school was more than $200,000 in debt, with at least $14,000 in uncollected tuition from the previous year, she says.

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