January 13, 2009
Brooklyn Diocese Moves to Shut 14 Schools
By PAUL VITELLO and WINNIE HU
The Diocese of Brooklyn has proposed closing 14 elementary schools at the end of the current academic year, a plan that would mean that one of the nation’s largest Catholic dioceses would have shuttered nearly 40 percent of its grade schools in the past seven years.
The proposed closings and mergers, announced on Monday, are the latest retrenchment for a school system that was once a bedrock of neighborhood stability, and a magnet for families of many creeds and homelands seeking safe, reliable education at a relatively modest cost.
The news, passed along at midday to principals of schools from Flushing, Queens, to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, shook students, parents and teachers, many of whom had joined in desperate fund-raising efforts in recent months to avoid the ax. In a well-publicized process that began in September, diocesan officials had been scrutinizing the finances and neighborhood dynamics of its 109 elementary schools to determine which areas might no longer be able to support a school.
The Brooklyn diocese, with 1.5 million Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens, is still the fifth most populous in the United States. But while there are pockets across the country — some suburbs and parts of the Southwest — where Catholic education still prospers, schools in urban areas like Brooklyn have heard bad tidings for decades.
Where its parish schools once anchored the neighborhoods from which they drew students, changing demographics have made filling those schools more difficult. Though many new arrivals in the neighborhoods are Catholic, they tend to be poorer than those who have moved on, and less able to afford the average $3,500 tuition at the diocese’s elementary schools, officials say. The presence of public charter schools has also been cited as a factor in the decline of parochial schools.
As a result, enrollment in the grade schools has dropped to about 35,000 from 55,000 since 1998. While the average vacancy rate is 15 percent, some schools have student gaps of another order: Blessed Sacrament School in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of those slated to close, once had 2,500 pupils; its enrollment today is 180.
Meanwhile, the cost of running the system has ballooned. Priests and nuns, once the low-cost heart of the instructional corps, have largely been replaced with comparatively high-cost lay teachers.
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