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Updated May 29, 2 p.m.
When the recess bell rings on June 5 at St. Barbara School in Brookfield, it will also be signaling the end of the institution.
In a letter received by school families on May 23, the parish's pastor announced that St. Barbara would be closing its doors for good at the end of the 2011-12 school year.
"After almost a century of learning, St. Barbara School in Brookfield will be unable to open its doors to students for the 2012-2013 academic year," Rev. Robert Casey wrote to parents. "The school has struggled with declining enrollment and increasing financial burdens for many years. St. Barbara's faith community has been a generous supporter of the school, but the cost to the parish has become too great. The parish finds itself facing an unwelcome truth; the school lacks a critical mass of students and the financial support necessary to operate its school."
The announcement is not a surprise after the school failed to meet enrollment and funding benchmarks set by Casey in April. In addition to not meeting its enrollment goal of 85 students (kindergarten through eighth grade), the school also failed to meet a fundraising goal of $150,000 for next school year.
The news was met by a mixture of resignation and sadness by school families, some of whose kids have been educated there for generations.
"I went to this school starting in third grade, and I'm sick over this, sick over it," said Ann Marie Sebastiano, who has two grandchildren at St. Barbara's, one in seventh grade and one in eighth. "Because you know what? It's a good school. The people, the teachers, it's a family here. These teachers, they love those kids like they're their own.
"It's a very sad day here. For the parents, children, students, everybody."
Tricia Cascone has two daughters in the school, one in kindergarten and one in first grade. The news that the school was closing was hard on them, she said.
"It's so hard for the kids to accept this, because they have come into this school thinking they're going to be 'til eighth grade," Cascone said.
Mike Fahey, who has daughters in second and fourth grade echoed that feeling.
"My kids were completely devastated," Fahey said. "I mean, they love this place. It's become a part of them, and it's going to be hard for them going elsewhere. We're trying to keep as many of the kids together as possible."
There was also criticism for Casey, who arrived as the parish's pastor in 2009. Some parents laid the blame for the school's closure at his feet.
Fahey, who was on the school board in 2009 when Casey arrived, said the school board at that time gave Casey a three- to five-year plan for finances and the curriculum but that it never gained traction with Casey.
"It's ironic that the plan the [archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools] came in with was essentially the same plan, with even less fundraising options and revenue generating options than the plan we presented three years ago," said Fahey. "So a lot of us feel [Casey] has wanted to keep the school standing [still] from the start."
Casey said that he and others in the parish worked with Office of Catholic School to find a solution to the school's problems, but that one was not able to worked out.
"Our parish community is grieving the loss of our school. Many generations of families have been part of St. Barbara School," said Casey in an emailed response to the Landmark. "As with any loss there are many emotions that come to the surface- feelings of sadness, anger, fear, etc.
"As the pastor of St. Barbara, I have not made this decision on my own. I have worked with a school board, with the Office of Catholic Schools, and with parish leadership. The process we have followed for the past three years has included input from our local vicar, Bishop John Manz, as well as the Cardinal. It is only with their support and their approval that this decision has been made.
"While the decision is a sad one, I find comfort in the fact that we followed a process to arrive at the decision. Sometimes people aren't aware of actions that actually have been taken - meetings that have occurred, work that's been done, avenues that have been pursued."
In 2010, St. Barbara and other area Catholic schools kicked around an idea to create a large regional school, perhaps one based at the now-vacant St. Joseph High School building in Westchester. However, that plan never came together and some parishes, like St. Louise de Marillac in LaGrange Park, started overhauling their own schools to survive.
But St. Barbara was slower to react, and the school's enrollment started to drop as families began to see the school move toward closure.
It was only at the beginning of 2012 that the parish started making a concerted effort at the kinds of changes St. Louise made at its school a year earlier - boosting the curriculum, exploring alternative learning environments like multiage classrooms and improving efforts at marketing.
At a special parish meeting on March 28, Casey rolled out the plan for keeping St. Barbara in business for 2012-13. He announced a parish-wide fundraising effort for the school and set the enrollment benchmarks necessary for the school to continue. But there was just a month to hit those marks.
At the May 1 deadline, the school had just 64 students enrolled and did not reach the fundraising goal either.
"It is what it is, and we're gonna go out with our heads up high," Fahey said. "We tried to do whatever we could to make it happen. The leadership, however, was lacking."
Now parents who held on at St. Barbara until the end are faced with the prospect of enrolling their children elsewhere.
To assist them, the Office of Catholic School sent packets last week to St. Barbara that included information on nine Catholic schools within a five-mile radius. In addition, the archdiocese is offering families a $1,000 voucher to go towards next year's tuition if they choose a Catholic school for their children.
All nine schools identified by the archdiocese, which include St. Louise and St. Mary in Riverside, have also been invited to St. Barbara on May 30 to meet with school families and will hold additional open houses for families as well, according to Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of schools for the Chicago Archdiocese.
"I'm sick about it," said McCaughey about the closure of St. Barbara. "To work with the people of St. Barbara was a privilege. They will be an asset wherever they choose for their children go."
St. Barbara's longtime principal, Janet Erazmus, is retiring when the school closes June 5. But the school's teachers will be looking for new jobs. McCaughey said that those teachers will be placed on a preferred hire list for any archdiocesan school looking to hire new teachers.
Nate Schuler contributed to this report.