Parents question Baltimore archdiocese over Catholic school closures

Students, parents, alumni pack high schools for first opportunity to confront church officials

  • An overflow crowd gathered Monday night at Cardinal Gibbons School for the first meeting between Baltimore archdiocesan officials and parents, students and alumni since a controversial plan to close 13 schools was announced last week. Similar meetings took place Monday night at Catholic High School and Mount St. Joseph High School.
An overflow crowd gathered Monday night at Cardinal Gibbons… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
March 09, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare and Frank Roylance | Baltimore Sun reporters

Facing a sea of red Monday night in the auditorium of the Cardinal Gibbons School, Bishop Denis J. Madden offered a glimmer of hope to students, parents and alumni distraught about plans to shut the high school down at the end of the academic year.

Parent Chris Stark, father of a junior, had asked whether the Archdiocese of Baltimore would consider charging the Cardinal Gibbons community a minimal rent and allowing the Southwest Baltimore landmark to reopen as an independent Catholic school.

"All kinds of options are being considered," Madden told the standing-room-only crowd, to thunderous applause.

"He really opened a door there," said local broadcaster Keith Mills, whose son, Nicholas, is president of the National Honor Society.

Students, parents and alumni packed auditoriums at three Catholic high schools Monday night, their first opportunity to confront church officials since Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien announced plans last week to close 13 schools at the end of the academic year. O'Brien did not attend any of the meetings, which began simultaneously at Cardinal Gibbons, Catholic High School and Mount St. Joseph High School. A spokesman cited a scheduling conflict.

Supporters clad in red, the school color at Cardinal Gibbons, filled the rows and stood four and five deep at the back of an auditorium that seats 800. Stark was deputized by the community to ask questions of Madden and other archdiocesan officials.

He asked one question several different ways: How much money would the school have to raise to stay open? Officials responded the same way each time: It's not a dollar issue. It's an enrollment issue.

"The problem is that there is less of a demand for seats," said Mark Pacione, of the archdiocesan planning office. "We cannot control that."

Facing rising costs and declining enrollments, the archdiocese plans to close Cardinal Gibbons and 12 grade schools in June as part of a larger reorganization church officials say is necessary to keep the system of 22,700 students viable. They say the consolidation will displace 2,152 students and 325 administrators, teachers and staff.

O'Brien has pledged a spot for each student at a different school, but some workers are expected to lose their jobs.

The meetings were part of a communication campaign that they hope will keep the families of displaced students in the archdiocesan schools. Monsignor Bob Hartnett, who headed the reorganization effort, said last week he would consider it a success if three-quarters of the displaced students enrolled in another archdiocesan school in September.

More than 200 people filled the auditorium at Catholic High, an independent school unaffected by the closings. The meeting began with a prayer and, while boisterous at times, remained mostly respectful. Parents repeatedly expressed their love for their chosen schools, and delight with their children's progress.

But they also expressed worry about what lay ahead, and anger and suspicion about the system's motives and priorities in the closure process. When officials asked for their trust, parents shouted "No!"

Many had particular concern for the fate of the Pride programs for special-needs children at two of the elementary schools slated for closing.

Shannon Brown, 36, of Charles Village has children in first and second grades at Sacred Heart of Mary School in Graceland Park. Her autistic son, Michael, 6, is in the program.

"We struggled for so many years to find the proper placement for Michael," she said. "The city had him in the Forbush School, which wasn't the right fit for him. Sacred Heart of Mary is just fantastic. ... They loved him, and took care of him and nurtured him, and I don't know what we're going to do now."

Mary Ellen Fise, a member of the archdiocesan consolidation committee, tried to reassure Pride parents that the system is committed to serving special-needs children, and that the program will be sustained and expanded to four schools. "We believe in the program, and there will be capacity for more teachers in that program," she said.

But she said the decisions are still several weeks away and could not satisfy parents worried about whether they would be able to transport their children to the new locations.

Other parents asked why they archdiocese targeted the schools they did, pointing out that east-side schools had predominantly African-American enrollments.

"I would like to know, 'Why those schools? Why those neighborhoods? Why those children?' " said Camille Burke, 39, of Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore. She said she is a graduate of Baltimore Catholic schools and college, and drives her 10-year-old daughter, Akira Tisdale, 10 miles each day to Mother Mary Lange, in Northeast Baltimore because "I want her to have the same education and exposure I did."

Mary Jo Hudson, an assistant superintendent of archdiocesan schools, said declining enrollments, school debt, and rising costs for faculty and facilities in the northeast schools "make it hard to keep a school open."

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