Impact of Catholic School Closures

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Within days, the Boston Archdiocese is expected to announce which of its eight inner city schools it plans to shut down. The closures are part of the church's effort to consolidate and revive Catholic education.

WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports on one Dorchester school that's bracing for the news.


BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: These fifth and sixth grade girls are making a Christmas banner to hang at their school. They're giggly and chatty like most girls their age, but they're also anxious....anxious that St. Peter's will close at the end of the school year.

ST. PETER'S STUDENTS: We've been here since kindergarten and we don't want to lose our friends.

TONESS: Most of the 156 girls and boys at St. Peters Elementary School are the children of Cape Verdean immigrants and get reduced tuition. Many of them live within walking distance, and stay at the St. Peter's free after school program until their parents pick them up.

Ileana Silva sent her eight-year-old daughter to a Boston public school for kindergarten, then she brought her to St. Peter's.

ILEANA SILVA: She gets more opportunity going to a Catholic school than what she gets in public school, I went to public school, and I didn't learn much. From what I can see, cause I have friends that goes to public school, my daughter in second grade gets more work than high school students get in public school.

TONESS: But Silva may have to send her daughter back to public school, because it would be difficult to send her to a Catholic school somewhere else in Dorchester.

St. Peter's has one of the lowest enrollments among the Catholic schools up for reorganization. And, at $2,500 a year, it has the lowest tuition.

TERRY DONILON: If we do nothing the schools close and go away, so doing nothing is not an option.


TONESS: Terry Donilon is spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston.

DONILON: We've begun to come up with a plan that will in essence save Catholic education.

TONESS: The archdiocese plans to close two or three of its eight schools in Dorchester and Mattapan, where attendance has plummeted since the 1970s. It would then reopen a smaller group of bigger and what it says will be better schools. Donilon says the church plans to raise $40 to 50 million to invest in new or remodeled buildings, technology and increased staff salaries.

DONILON: The curriculum is already strong, if you're going to stay competitive with some of the non-Catholic private schools and the other schools that are out there, you've just got to be willing to take it to the next level, and that's what we're saying here.

TONESS: Urban Catholic schools are closing around the country. Dean Joseph O'Keefe at Boston College's Lynch School of Education is following the trend. He says the Boston Archdiocese is doing what it can to confront a grim reality.

JOSEPH O'KEEFE: I think the closing of Catholic schools haphazardly is tragic. The closing of Catholic schools strategically while very sad, I think is needed for the future.

TONESS: But the new model of bigger, regional schools won't work for students at St. Peters, says Principal Mary Lou Amrhein. Since they're mostly the children of immigrants, whose parents don't speak English well, so they need more attention.

MARY LOU AMRHEIN: Our children need support. Our kids are very smart, but they need a lot of support.

TONESS: She also worries that many won't make the switch to another school, because it would just be too confusing for their parents and they don't have cars.

Amrhein says she fears that St. Peters is guaranteed to be closed. That's because it's located in the Bowdoin-Geneva area in Dorchester, one of the city's hotbeds of violent crime. She says closing the school goes against the mission of Catholic charity.

AMRHEIN: People in other areas of Dorchester don't want to come here, unfortunately because they say it's not safe. Shouldn't the church be taking some bold stands? And saying, "well we still want to support something there, maybe it doesn't meet the numbers, but it's important to try to ensure the safety and we can do that through education."

TONESS:The Boston police who patrol the area agree. A sergeant and captain responsible for the local police district wrote a letter warning against closure. They said St. Peters is important for preventing crime in the area, and a teen center run by the school is one of the only safe havens getting young people off the street.

The officers stressed the importance of education in fighting poverty and violence.

While schools like St. Peters struggle to stay open, Catholic schools in the state's suburbs are thriving. Principal Amrhein says this reflects a disturbing trend for Catholic education.

AMRHEIN: In the future Catholic education would be for the wealthier, white, middle class people, and that would be a shame in my view.

TONESS: If the archdiocese does decide to close St. Peters, Amrhein says she'll work to keep it open as an independent school.

This program aired on November 28, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.