At Cardinal Gibbons, a final exercise

Students at closing high school reflect on experiences, ponder uncertain future

May 21, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

It was the sort of prayer that Justin Fratantuono might have delivered next year at graduation. But the Cardinal Gibbons School is closing this month, so the junior's words of thanks Friday for teachers, friends and a school "that has allowed us to keep learning every day of our lives" took on the weight of a valedictory.

"This is a really emotional day for me," Fratantuono, vice president of the last junior class at Gibbons, said after the final school assembly at the Catholic high school for boys in Southwest Baltimore. "I realize how much fun I have had here and how much I am going to miss everyone."

There still are exams next week and commencement ceremonies at the Basilica next weekend for the school's 44th and final graduating class. But for students, the underclassmen's awards ceremony Friday was a last opportunity to gather at the school, reflect on their experiences and ponder an uncertain future.

"This is really the last day," said senior Dominic Fratantuono, Justin's brother. "Not just for this year, but forever."

Gibbons is the lone high school among the 13 schools to be closed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore as part of a reorganization announced this year, and the one that has provoked the greatest outcry. Parents, alumni and staff say they have raised money to take over Gibbons and run it as an independent Catholic school, but the archdiocese has been unreceptive to the idea.

A sign at the front of the school still reads, "Save Gibbons." At Friday's ceremony, students — most of them dressed in Crusader red — cheered for classmates and teachers. Parents shed quiet tears.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien has expressed regret.

"The value and importance of your school in your life and the lives of your family and the entire Cardinal Gibbons community have not been lost on me," O'Brien wrote in a letter to students published last week in the archdiocesan newspaper. "You neither deserve nor are responsible for the upheaval that has resulted in the upending of your lives."

Justin Fratantuono, who wore his Gibbons Class of 2011 ring Friday, was unmoved.

"He praised our traditions and said all good stuff, but why couldn't he say that all to us in person?" he asked. "He has not shown his face here."

O'Brien asked that the students continue their Catholic education. Archdiocesan officials have pledged to extend all scholarships awarded by Gibbons to other Catholic schools, and a spokesman said staff is assisting with transfers and arranging bus transportation.

"We are not turning kids loose and telling them to fend for themselves," said spokesman Sean Caine. "A new school can't be the same and we understand that, but if it's a Catholic education they want, we will help."

Some families say they are so disillusioned that they are leaving the Catholic school system.

Sophomore Joshua Mele, who collected five awards at the ceremony, did not apply to another Catholic school. He is planning to attend Catonsville High School in the fall.

"He has been in Catholic school all his life, but we felt betrayed by this decision," said Jeanne Mele, his mother. "We fought hard for Gibbons."

Joshua said, "I am over the sad part now and ready to move on. But he added: "I will always consider myself a Gibbons alum, and I will miss the teachers here and my friends."

Jeanne Mele bought a Gibbons ring for herself. It holds the traditional red stone but is engraved with 2010. Joshua was a member of the Class of 2012.

"We are leaving in 2010," Jeanne Mele said. "It really is the end."

Stefan Kresslein is heading to Archbishop Curley High School.

"I wanted an all-boys school," said his mother, Debbie Kresslein. "Curley owns its buildings and the grounds. I don't think we have to worry about its closing."

The Antoszewski brothers — junior Graham and freshman Adam — combined to receive more than a dozen awards Friday. Their mother said she is seeking an out-of-district placement for them at Catonsville High School.

"I am so proud of them," Joann Antoszewski said. "But we are all sour on the way all these boys have been treated."

Graham Antoszewski said he would "miss this close-knit community, where I felt right away that I belonged. "Catonsville will definitely be a different experience, but I will be the same person I am at whatever school I go to."

At the end of the assembly, guidance counselor Megan Bowers read the dedication to "all students, faculty and staff" in Gibbons' 2010 yearbook. Written by teacher and alumnus Michael Reeb, it began "You were there when we needed you most" and concluded: "You were there on the darkest day of our year to shine a light."

She added her gratitude.

"Thank you for being joyful today," she said. "Hold on to that joy as you move on."

Vice Principal Steve Cole asked the students to return one last time for an optional field day Thursday.

"Unfortunately," he said, his voice breaking, "it will be the last time we get together in friendship and brotherhood as a community."

After spending the morning congratulating award winners, Principal David Brown — dressed in a red blazer — returned to his office to execute a more somber task: writing termination letters to his staff.

About half have found jobs, Brown said.

"The rest of us will be on the unemployment line."

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