By Emily Drooby and Paula Katinas
WINDSOR TERRACE – In a harmful blow to Catholic education, six schools in Brooklyn and Queens will be closing their doors forever, the Diocese of Brooklyn announced on July 9.
The six schools had been facing financial difficulties for several years, but diocesan officials said the coronavirus pandemic, which stopped the U.S. economy in its tracks and left millions of Americans out of work, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the painful decision to close.
The six schools are Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Whitestone, St. Mel’s Catholic Academy in Flushing, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in Howard Beach, Our Lady’s Catholic Academy in South Ozone Park, Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in East Williamsburg and St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy in Flatbush.
“This is an incredibly sad day for our Catholic community to have to close these schools, but the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is insurmountable,” said Thomas Chadzutko, Ed.D., superintendent of schools. “The difficult decisions come after the intense analysis of the financial picture of each academy.”
The financial picture was bleak at the six schools.
Collectively, the schools have seen a decline of enrollment over the last five years, according to diocesan officials, who said registration totals for the upcoming school year were down significantly. Officials pointed to massive unemployment and the loss of business resulting from the pandemic as the main reason for the financial problems in the schools.
More than $630,000 in tuition bills for 2019-2020 school year remains outstanding at the six schools, officials said.
Three of the schools — Our Lady’s Catholic Academy, Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy and St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy — were established within the past 11 years.
St. Mel’s Catholic Academy opened in 1960 and educated generations of students.
Steps will be taken to ease the transition for students, officials said. Online informational meetings will be held for parents at the academies scheduled to close and administrators and personnel from neighboring Catholic academies will be available to answer questions from parents.
On the same day the Diocese of Brooklyn delivered the news that it was shuttering six of its schools, the Archdiocese of New York announced it was closing 20 schools.
“Children are always the most innocent victims of any crisis, and this COVID-19 pandemic is no exception,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. “Too many have lost parents and grandparents to this insidious virus, and now thousands will not see their beloved school again.
“I’ve kept a hopeful eye on our schools throughout this saga and my prayers are with all of the children and their families who will be affected by this sad news.”
“This is a very sad time for Catholic education,” Chadzutko said, noting the planned closures of schools “on both sides of the river.”
The pandemic hastened the end for the financially troubled schools, he said. “When you have weak schools, when a crisis hits, they get weaker,” he said.
But other forces are also at play, according to Father Joseph Gibino, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, which is losing its school.
Families, including Catholic families, are tired of the high cost of living in New York City and are fleeing, he said. Property values in Whitestone, like other neighborhoods, are high. “It is very expensive to live in our neighborhood,” he told Currents News, adding that many Catholic parents are looking to public education as a result. “Tuition may be prohibitive,” he said.
It’s a shame, Father Gibino said. “Catholic education is one of the hallmarks of our faith,” he said.
Parents at one school, Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy, have indicated that they plan to put up a fight to keep their school open.
Parents and supporters organized a petition drive on change.org in an effort to keep the doors open. Within a few hours of posting the petition, more than 250 signatures had been collected.
“We innately feel such an aggressive life change for all QOR students will deeply affect their mental and emotional wellbeing, and while we respectfully feel gratitude for the roundup of alleged resources to help with sourcing a new school, we in no way feel confident this help will span the magnitude of what will truly be needed,” the petition reads in part.
The Diocese of Brooklyn temporarily closed all of its schools on March 20 in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The schools remained closed for the rest of the term and remote learning programs were put in place.
The closures signaled a continuation of the troubling financial picture for Catholic schools, not only in the diocese but in the U.S.
There are currently approximately 6,000 K-12 Catholic schools in the country, according to the National Catholic Education Association, down from 11,000 in 1970.
In recent years, the Diocese of Brooklyn has adopted an academy model, moving away from the traditional parish school that had been financially supported by the diocese and by the parish. Under the academy model, the diocese still has the ultimate say but the schools are largely run by local clergy and boards of directors who are responsible for operating budgets and fundraising.
Since the pandemic hit, 98 Catholic schools across the country have closed, according to the National Catholic Education Association. The closures in the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York will add to that total.
The diocese is ready to help students and families transfer to nearby Catholic academies. Through the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Trust, the diocese will provide a one-time $500 financial grant for each child from a closed school to enroll in a new Catholic elementary academy or school in Brooklyn or Queens this fall, as long as they have met all of the financial obligations.
Tuition assistance is also available through Futures in Education, the non-profit organization that assists families in need. For information, visit www.futuresineducation.org.
Even with the closures, there is still a great deal of optimism about the future of Catholic education in Brooklyn and Queens, Chadzutko said.
“Our smaller and caring community of schools has many advantages as witnessed by how quickly we adapted to remote learning this spring,” Chadzutko said. ”In grades K-8, we were nearly one-to-one, students-to-devices with data plans, an incredible feat which allowed for distance learning success in our schools.”
The article was updated to include additional comments from Thomas Chadzutko, comments from Father Joseph Gibino and information about the change.org petition organized by parents.
Correction: The original version of the article had the incorrect location of St. Mel’s Catholic Academy. It is in Flushing.