By Jessica Easthope
Space is tight on the walls and in the hallways of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy in Belle Harbor, Queens. That’s because it’s been 20 years since the school had this many students.
“We know that we’ve made great efforts in our diocese in trying to increase enrollment and have people try to see the value of Catholic education here in Brooklyn and Queens,” said Principal Christopher Scharbach.
More than 200 Catholic schools across the country have closed over the past year and nationwide enrollment fell 6.4 percent, but in the Diocese of Brooklyn, registration is up 1,500 students compared to this time last year. At St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy, 569 students are currently enrolled and that number will be shooting up to 638 come September.
“We’ve had a very strong enrollment but the interesting thing has been how the enrollment has grown this year during the pandemic,” said Judy Lindner, a first grade teacher at the school.
Judy says her students have adapted seamlessly – watching her over and sometimes through the plastic shields on their desks. Her first graders don’t take up too much space – but next year, there’ll be more of them.
“Because we are growing in enrollment, instead of having two classes of say 30 in each class, Mr. Scharbach is able to make the first grade into three classes,” Judy said.
But it’s not only first grade that’s had to modify. As enrollment climbed, Principal Scharbach had to transform the entire school.
“We’re reusing rooms used for different reasons now as classrooms,” he said. “One thing the pandemic has had us do is really be creative with how we structure a school.”
He says it’s sad to see so many people forced out of Catholic schools by the economic effects of the pandemic – a problem they’ve tried to keep under control at the school.
“We’ve tried to keep tuition as low as possible and not have as large of increases as we’ve had in the past,” Principal Scharbach said, “and we’ve tried to work with families around it and we have a tuition assistance committee for anyone who has fallen on tough times.”
The school’s motto is “anchored in Christ” and staff say that mindset has kept them afloat.
“We are just continuing to put faith first,” Judy said.
So as the school continues to make room, repurpose and squeeze in where they can – Mr. Scharbach says it’s the artwork, prayers and projects on the walls that remind him that a Catholic education is a gift.