Catholic school parents closed out of decision making

March 11, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Wednesday morning on a quiet sidewalk in Halethorpe, before their workday begins, Joe Herbert, fourth-generation electrician, and Eric Evans, a building maintenance man, take a moment to describe precisely -- and proudly -- all the work they and other parents of Ascension School have done over the years. They both raised their families in Halethorpe and sent their kids to the Catholic elementary-middle school. They can't believe the Archdiocese of Baltimore wants to close the place without giving the parents a shot at keeping it alive. The parents, after all, put in the air-conditioning ducts.

"You see those A/C units up on the roof?" says Joe Herbert, a big and affable guy. "The parents put in all those units. There are eight units up there. Donny Fowler, one of the parents, worked up on that roof."

"Parents did all the duct work," adds Mr. Evans, who works for the Arc of Howard County.

"New drop ceilings, everything," says Mr. Herbert, who works for the Herbert Electric Co., a 100-year-old family business.

He points to the brick school that was constructed to serve about 200 boys and girls. There are 146 pupils through eighth grade now, says the archdiocese, which has slated Ascension for closure in June.

"This isn't just about business, a school not being able to sustain itself," Mr. Herbert says. "There's a strong parent base here."

And you can build something on such a base. Parents installed the air-conditioning and they put new roofs on the school's two levels. They painted walls.

"I was here painting once until 4 in the morning," says Mr. Evans.

"And the computer lab," says Mr. Herbert.

"If you look up in those windows," says Mr. Evans, pointing to the school's second floor, "you can see the computers."

"Parents did all the wiring for the computers," says Mr. Herbert.

"We put a new kitchen in the school, too," he adds. "We had a crab feast and raised money for an all-new, commercial kitchen."

They did some landscaping. They installed new exterior lighting and new, energy-saving lights indoors. Parents installed a new sound system for the little stage in the school basement, and that gave a boost to the annual Christmas pageant.

So the moms and dads of Ascension put a lot into the school. In return, Joe Herbert says on the sidewalk, Catholic school officials should have been willing to work with them to keep Ascension open instead of announcing its closure. Last fall, the archdiocese started assessing the school's finances and potential for growth. That, says Mr. Herbert, was the first he heard about the possibility of Ascension closing.

But there were never any discussions with the parents about alternatives to that action, and that's his point.

Not only did the experts miss the parent factor in the potential of the school, Joe Herbert says, they missed other things: Halethorpe's location on the southwestern edge of Baltimore, its proximity to the MARC train system, its potential to attract new families with school-age children, some of them from the military base realignment that is expected to bring thousands of jobs into the metropolitan area.

"[Student test] scores have been coming up," says Mr. Evans. "They got a new principal a couple of years ago, and she's great."

So he and Mr. Herbert see the decision to close the school as short-sighted.

Plus, Mr. Herbert believes the closure will create a hardship on the parents who, unable to give money, have put their sweat into the school. "These are blue-collar families," says Mr. Herbert. "People are getting hammered in this economy. These are the families that are being displaced. These parents are really sacrificing to give their kids a [Catholic] education. Sometimes it appears the small, blue-collar schools just do not matter."

But Mr. Herbert, Mr. Evans and others aren't giving up yet. Every Friday during Lent, the parish has a fish fry. "This Friday is our Friday fish fry finale -- and say that three times fast," Mr. Herbert says. "And afterwards, we're going to have a meeting."

And the Ascension parents will discuss doing one more chore for the school. They'll try to save it.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only.

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