Students without a school, again

Cardinal Gibbons closing is deja vu for Towson Catholic refugees

May 06, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

When Cardinal Gibbons High School junior Kanu Aja spotted a group of officials from the Archdiocese of Baltimore touring the campus this year, he assumed the worst.

"They did the same thing at Towson Catholic last year," said Aja, 18, of Finksburg. "They walked through the whole school and talked and then shut down the school.

"I had a gut feeling that something bad would happen here."

Aja was one of four Towson Catholic underclassmen who wound up at Gibbons last fall. With Gibbons now closing at the end of the academic year, the boys again find themselves without a school and scrambling to make plans for the fall.

"How could this have happened to us twice?" asked sophomore Denzel Varner, 16, of Randallstown. "Changing schools is such a big hassle."

Junior Travis Jones spoke of feeling "really let down."

"Not by Gibbons, but by the archdiocese," said Jones, 17, of Baltimore. "The first thing my mother asked before I decided on Gibbons was if it would stay open. Now I have to start all over again.

"I guess I am getting good at that."

Cynthia Smoot, stepmother of 17-year-old junior Nick Smoot of Milford Mill, said the family wants "no more of Catholic schools." She said Nick will transfer to Milford Mill Academy for his senior year.

"He just wants to let all this go," Cynthia Smoot said.

The decision of Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien to shut down Gibbons, the only high school among the 13 archdiocesan schools set to close in June, continues to draw protests.

Families, faculty and alumni have spoken of purchasing the property in Southwestern Baltimore and operating an independent Catholic school, similar to Loyola Blakefield or Calvert Hall. They say they have raised money for Gibbons Educational Services, created an academic plan and are planning a budget.

"Nick really likes Gibbons, and our family really appreciates the welcoming atmosphere there," Cynthia Smoot said. "He would definitely stay, if only it would stay open."

But the archdiocese, which owns the property on Wilkens Avenue, has discouraged the idea.

Archdiocese officials have urged displaced Gibbons students to transfer to other area Catholic schools. Of the 210 who would have enrolled at Gibbons in the fall, officials said, 178 have applied for such a transfer, and 163 have been accepted by a school.

The archdiocese has given students who are planning to attend a Catholic school until Friday to make their choice. Mark Pacione, the associate director of the archdiocesan schools for planning, said Thursday that the deadline would be flexible.

"I have every confidence that we will find a place for everyone who wants to continue with a Catholic education," Pacione said. He said he would call the 32 students who have not applied for a transfer.

Varner has chosen John Carroll High School in Bel Air, an hour's drive from his Randallstown home and his third school in as many years.

He will have to rise before dawn to get to a bus service in White Marsh to catch a ride to the Harford County school.

"It will be super early, but I can handle it," he said.

The bus service will cost $1,200, in addition to tuition, Constancia Varner said. And because Denzel is a three-sport athlete, she said, she expects to drive from her job in Reisterstown to pick him up after practices and games.

"We want to keep Denzel in Catholic school and this is our only choice right now," she said. "We are going to do what we have to, to make this happen. Otherwise, we will defeat all the time and effort Denzel has already put into his schooling."

After Towson Catholic, Varner said, her son "was just hitting his stride" at Gibbons.

"The first transfer was a shock," she said. "But Gibbons gave him counseling and really helped him adjust. Now, unless there is a miracle and this school stays open, it looks like we have to start all over again.

"I don't think the archdiocese realizes what it is doing to these kids."

Pacione said Aja, Jones, Smoot and Varner "have been on my screen since this closing was announced."

"High school is tough enough without having to make these changes every year," he said. "I feel for these kids. We will find a place for them. We don't want anyone to end up in a school where he is not comfortable."

Neither Jones nor Aja had decided where they would go this fall.

"I wanted to be looking at colleges now, not trying to find another high school," Jones said.

Aja wants to move on. "The future is too shaky here," he said.

While the students described the move from Towson Catholic as difficult, they said they had settled in at Gibbons. They joined teams — Jones played football and ran track; Aja, who is 6-foot-9, joined the basketball team; and Varner was a three-sport athlete — and immersed themselves in their new surroundings.

"Classes are harder here, but the teachers always help," Aja said.

"Everyone knows everyone here," Jones said. "The work was hard, but the teachers showed they cared and made it better for us."

Jones said he will continue wearing his Gibbons school ring, no matter where he ends up spending his senior year.

"I know I will always be a Gibbons alum," he said. "Would it be too weird to have three schools on my high school diploma?"

Jones said he has learned that "life doesn't work out the way you plan. You just have to go with the flow and hope for the best."

Added Varner: "You just keeping going forward and staying positive."

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