Our Lady Queen of Peace forced to cut K-8 program

Low enrollment, increased costs push school to reconfigure

March 03, 2007|By Andrew Schaefer | Andrew Schaefer,sun reporter

Allyssa Seebold went to kindergarten last year at St. Rita's School in Dundalk, but when that closed, she moved to Our Lady Queen of Peace School in Middle River for first grade.

Now she has to find a new school again.

Her mother worries that Allyssa, who also switched schools in prekindergarten, is feeling the effects of not being able to settle in at one school.

"Knowing she's not going to have the same friends next year is hard for her," Terra Seebold said, "and I'm starting to see those problems in her grades."

Our Lady Queen of Peace, which would have celebrated its 50th anniversary next year, is closing its kindergarten-through-eighth-grade program. Roman Catholic schools are facing waning enrollment and increased costs, and the school will be the 13th in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to close, reconfigure or merge with another school since 2001, according to the archdiocese.

Elementary and middle school students at Our Lady Queen of Peace were guaranteed spots at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Essex if they registered by early last month, but some parents are unhappy about the school's closing.

Those parents said they were not given enough warning that the school was in trouble and that they would have helped raise money to try to save the school. School officials say they gave notice of the school's dire situation, and that they have no choice but to close.

The decision was announced at a Jan. 22 meeting. It came six months after St. Rita's announced it was closing, despite earlier assurances from the archdiocese that it would remain open.

To continue offering a K-8 program next year, Our Lady Queen of Peace would have had to raise tuition by more than 20 percent, or about $900, said the Rev. Jason Worley, the parish's head pastor. Instead, in what the archdiocese calls a reconfiguration, the school will continue to offer prekindergarten classes for children ages 3 and 4 and operate a day care center.

About 80 students from Our Lady Queen of Peace have taken Our Lady of Mount Carmel's offer. But some parents are unhappy with the situation.

"Honestly, I knew enrollment had declined, but I did not know [the school] was in any jeopardy of being closed," said Chris Lumpkin, who kept his children in the school even after the family moved to Fallston.

He said the family was willing to make the longer drive because they liked the teachers at Our Lady Queen of Peace. His children will attend a Catholic school in Fallston next year, Lumpkin said.

Seebold said the school did not do enough to inform parents of its financial problems.

"If parents were presented with the issue, we would've come forward and did what we could do," she said. "If our efforts proved wrong, then we'd have to do something else, but at least give us a chance."

She said she is moving to Pennsylvania before the next school year begins, saying she prefers the curriculum and atmosphere of schools there. She said her daughter would go to public school in York County because she does not trust Catholic schools after the two closings.

Gil Jasinski, whose daughter is in second grade at Our Lady Queen of Peace, said he will miss the warm atmosphere at the school.

"This school is like a big family," he said. "You know the staff by name, you're very involved. We've got a good group of parents willing to donate time and money."

He said his daughter would attend St. Clare in Essex next year.

Worley said parents were repeatedly warned about the school's situation, most forcefully at a budget meeting last May at which the school's business manager said it would have to close if enrollment did not increase.

"We couldn't have said it any plainer," Worley said, adding that about 20 parents attended the meeting.

The school's enrollment of 203 students includes 163 in grades K-8. Worley said the school needs about 230 K-8 students to be viable.

The school could not give its teachers their cost-of-living increase this year because of the low enrollment, Worley said. He said the school asked parents to give small gifts at Christmas to help with the shortfall, but only about five people responded.

When the school subsequently sent out letters to parents who own businesses asking for contributions, no one responded, Worley said.

Worley said Queen of Peace could offer K-8 classes again if an influx of new residents creates enough demand.

Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, said it is not unusual for parents to become upset when a school closes or undergoes drastic changes.

"It might have been where they went to school or their parents went to school," he said. "Something that has become part of them no longer will continue to exist."

Worley said the decision was difficult, but it was one that had to be made.

"You have to make decisions which are best for the entire community," he said. "The school just couldn't do it again next year."

andrew.schaefer@baltsun.com

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