For one Baltimore school, sighs of relief

Park Heights' St. Ambrose to stay open, take pupils from other schools

March 04, 2010|By Nicole Fuller | nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

St. Ambrose Catholic School had many attributes that could have led Baltimore's archdiocese to target it for closure: Located in an aging building, in a downtrodden area of the city, the school has seen enrollment drop by half in the last decade.

Even its longtime principal was worried, and she took to prayer.

But on Wednesday, instead of feeling despair, the school community was ecstatic.

In a letter sent home with students, Pamela K. Sanders, principal of the Northwest Baltimore school, informed parents that St. Ambrose had gotten a reprieve. While 13 schools in the archdiocese would close, St. Ambrose would remain open - and likely gain enrollment from some of the schools closed nearby, a sort of blessing in disguise.

"This is very difficult news for all of us who work and teach in Catholic schools," the letter said, noting that the school expected a bump in enrollment from the displaced students. "St. Ambrose Catholic School remains open and we plan to offer a warm welcome to those families."

St. Ambrose was named as one of three recommended "receiving schools" for a group of schools slated for closure: Fr. Charles Hall Catholic Elementary School, Fr. Charles Hall Catholic Middle School, St. Bernardine Catholic School and St. William of York School.

News of survival for the school, a hulking building adjoining a parish in the 4500 block of Park Heights Ave., was met with glee from students and parents at dismissal time.

"The school's not going to close," said Diamonde Green, a fourth-grader, a wide smile spreading across her face as she walked out of the school with her father, Daniel Green.

"I am totally blessed," said Debbie Chase-Johnson, clutching the principal's letter after picking up her son, Leon Johnson, a second-grader.

All three of her children have attended St. Ambrose; her eldest daughter started at the school in 1985.

Thinking about the school closing and having to send her son elsewhere - as she had in the past few days as rumors swirled - left her "extremely worried," she said.

"This is our family," said Chase-Johnson, a Baptist. Her ties to the school are so strong that she says she is considering becoming Catholic.

Sanders declined an interview, saying that she had been instructed not to speak to the news media.

She said that out of respect for the schools targeted for closure, church officials wanted to give the school communities time to digest the news before commenting publicly. A news conference is scheduled for today.

In the letter to parents, Sanders said the closings were due, in part, to the "challenging economic times" amid "declining enrollment, changing work force, aging facilities and the increasing operations costs."

Built in 1926, St. Ambrose was expanded in the 1950s as its enrollment jumped to 1,000 students in what was then a thriving area of working-class Catholic families. But enrollment fell to 330 in 2000 and is 160 today in grades kindergarten through eighth.

While expressing thanks for their good fortune, parents and students interviewed on Wednesday expressed sympathy for the soon-to-be-closed schools.

Syreeka Herbert, a St. Ambrose alumna, said the school has made a big difference in the life of her nephew, Kenard Herbert, a third-grader. She said he failed first grade at a nearby public elementary school, but at St. Ambrose, he makes honor roll and has been named "Student of the Month."

Herbert said St. Ambrose's academics were challenging when she was a student there from fourth to sixth grades, and it took her hours to complete homework. When she transferred to public school for middle school, she completed homework in 30 minutes.

Going back to public school is not an option for her nephew, she said, adding that she hoped an influx of students from the closed schools wouldn't dilute St. Ambrose's academics. "When there are too many kids in the classroom, things can get out of hand."

Denicia Barnes, a St. Ambrose third-grader, was expecting new students next fall. "They said we gotta make friends" with the new students, she said.

Denicia's father, Renard Barnes, let out a sigh of relief. "I'm just so happy that her school's not closing," he said.

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