Renovations are being done in the existing Seton Keough High… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
Months after announcing that nearly 20 percent of the region's Catholic schools would close, the Archidocese of Baltimore is preparing to open a new elementary school designed to retain some displaced students, fighting skepticism from some parents and teachers who question the move.
Holy Angels Elementary School will make its debut next month on two floors in one wing of Seton Keough High School on Caton Avenue. The archdiocese has spent about $1.4 million to renovate a nearly 40-year-old building and carve out space for its newest elementary. It will be the first coed grade school to share facilities with an all-girls high school, although some are bothered by the prospect.
Others are hesitant to move their children to the new school, and some say they're puzzled by the strategy.
"Why close perfectly good buildings and let them rot, while spending millions to build a new school?" asked Mary L. Bunting, whose two children attended Ascension School in Halethorpe, one of the schools that closed in June. Her daughter has transferred to the eighth grade at St. Augustine Elementary but her son, a sixth-grader, will attend public school.
Kathleen Jauschnegg lost her teaching job in the closures. She will teach social studies part time at Seton Keough. She has already enrolled her two children at Monsignor Slade School in Glen Burnie and is reluctant to transfer them to Holy Angels.
"It is hard to commit to a new school," she said.
Kathleen Filipelli, the principal of Holy Angels, believes doubters can be won over.
"Our biggest job is to show families there is a commitment here," Filipelli said. "We are the new kids on the block with a lot to prove. But we are up to the challenge and eager to show off what we have to offer."
That includes a top teaching staff — she had 180 candidates for 18 openings — as well as state-of-the-art facilities, the latest technology and Spanish-language classes.
The school is opening at a time of tremendous upheaval in the Baltimore area's Catholic education system. Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien announced in March that 12 elementary schools and Cardinal Gibbons high school would be shuttered because of rising costs and falling enrollment.
At the same time, the archdiocese mapped out a plan to start a bilingual program at Archbishop Borders Elementary in Highlandtown, incorporate science and technology initiatives in several schools, and open Holy Angels.
At the outset, Holy Angels is having a hard time winning converts. The school has room for 250 students but has enrolled only about 100. Filipelli expects registration to continue throughout the month, she said. But class sizes are likely to remain small through the first year.
Transportation for students who had walked to neighborhood schools could have been a stumbling block. But Danny Schuster, a local contractor and longtime supporter of Catholic schools, has donated money to defray transportation costs and allow city families to continue in the parochial school system.
As she oversees the construction project on the campus just off Interstate 95, Filipelli said, "I could never have given my students 30 acres, a spacious gym, their own playground and access to so much."
The renovation includes a new playground and a walkway to athletic fields at the closed Cardinal Gibbons, which both the high school and elementary can use for the time being.
The projects marks the first time that a single-sex Catholic high school in the Baltimore region would share space with a coed school. Filipelli and Karen Hanrahan, principal at Seton Keough, are dealing with discontent from parents who don't want boys and girls in the same building.
"We have been against the introduction of the elementary school in our building since the beginning," said Tonja Stevens, an officer in the Seton Keogh Mothers Club. "Now that construction is coming to an end, we are going to maintain our Seton Keough family while giving these young children a warm Christian welcome."
Hanrahan, who moved to Baltimore from Rhode Island a few months ago to take over at Seton Keough, said two schools in one building has worked in several areas in New England.
Both principals insists the building offers ample space for two schools.
"Having youngsters in the building is exciting for the high school students," Hanrahan said. "I have seen this model work. I know it can be done."
The high school is no stranger to change. It opened on the 30-acre campus in the 1960s, when Catholic high schools were so crowded that they had to turn students away. Enrollments began to drop in the late 1980s, and in the past year Towson Catholic and Cardinal Gibbons high schools both closed. In 1988, Keough merged with Seton High when that school closed, and enrollment today is at 420 students, whose annual tuition is $10,350.
At the main entrance, the smell of drywall and fresh paint greets visitors, some of whom have come to enroll in Holy Angels. The high school, which moved its administrative offices to temporary quarters during construction, has been "nothing but hospitable over this invasion," Filipelli said.
Hanrahan responded, "This is not an invasion. We are happy to have them and happy to do this new thing."
Teachers return to classrooms on Monday and students will arrive two weeks later.
"I can't wait to see the look on their faces when they see this much bigger, fresher and newer place," Filipelli said.