The Chicago Archdiocese’s Office of Schools will present a “mini strategic plan” proposal to St. Barbara School families in mid-February aimed at keeping the school, which will celebrate its 100th birthday next year, open.
Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said the town hall meeting where the plan will be presented will be “a joint flashpoint moment” where the future of the school will become clear.
The key, she said, is buy-in from the parish community. Judging from a town hall meeting that drew more than 200 parishioners to the school in mid-January, McCaughey said, St. Barbara is expected to forge ahead into the future.
“We took a vote, and all but three people wanted to give this a go,” she said.
Whatever the decision is, it will come from St. Barbara parishioners, said McCaughey, not the archdiocese.
“This is a decision the group has to make,” McCaughey said. “I’m not making the decision. We’re putting it back into the hands of the parish. This is an effort to say, ‘What do you want to do?'”
The past year has been a tough one for St. Barbara School, 8900 Windemere Ave. in Brookfield. After more than a year of rumors that the school was headed for closure or consolidation, enrollment fell for the 2011-12 school year from more than 100 students to fewer than 80.
With the assistance of the archdiocese, however, the school and its families have received an injection of enthusiasm. Several new committees have been created to address academics, finances and marketing/recruiting.
Rev. Robert Casey, pastor at St. Barbara, said that from his perspective the effort to improve and market the school is nothing new.
“On our end nothing has changed,” said Casey. “We’ve been open to working on plans and marketing for years.”
But within the past month, those efforts have been ratcheted up.
In late January, following that month’s town hall meeting with McCaughey, the school unveiled a new website. School parent Carla Spielman is directing the marketing effort with an eye on attracting new families to St. Barbara as well as retaining those who remain.
Spielman said she was given the green light for the marketing push in mid-January. Her committee continues to get help from archdiocesan office.
“There’s a sense of urgency because we were given the go-ahead to do it recently,” said Spielman, who has a daughter in kindergarten at the school. “I think we’re on the road to improving St. Barbara. … We’re not thinking of it as do-or-die, but as doing our best.”
In addition to an announcement about the school’s new website, Spielman in the past two weeks has also sent out press releases touting new curricular offerings, an open house event and the appearance at the school of a children’s book author.
“You’ve got to keep up with P.R. and foster relationships,” said Spielman. “You’re selling a product – education at St. Barbara School.”
At the same time St. Barbara is focusing in on its own particular circumstances, the school is part of a collaborative effort between St. Barbara, St. Louise de Marillac in LaGrange Park and Divine Infant in Westchester to share ideas, resources and curricular programs.
The new curricular offerings Spielman touted last week for St. Barbara – an all-school Latin and Greek root word course, a new reading program for Pre-K through second grade and an upcoming online foreign language program – have also been rolled out at St. Louise and Divine Infant.
For Rev. Denis Condon, pastor at St. Louise de Marillac, the path was obvious. If Catholic schools were going to compete for students, they had to look to the future and embrace the 21st century.
“We thought we had to try as well as we can to prepare [students] for that,” Condon said.
St. Louise responded in 2011-12 by hiring a new principal and, for the first time, creating multi-age classrooms in the lower grades. They also began introducing an “electronic classroom” concept. All junior high students have laptop computers and technology instruction is part of the daily routine in intermediate grades.
“The final thrust is, if we can prepare kids for 2020 and beyond, we have to do that,” Condon said.
The consortium of schools is also looking at a long-term possibility for creating an area school that would replace the individual parochial schools.
If an area school ever becomes a reality, it will be years down the road and will only happen if parishes can figure out how individual parishes would collaborate on governance and finances, among other concerns.
“That’s got to be down the road a number of years,” Condon said. “In the meantime, we’re putting our energies into our individual schools.”
If a central school is to ever become a reality, in the opinion of Divine Infant Pastor Rev. Michael Wanda, more than three small parishes are going to have to be involved.
“I really think we need to get more people involved in this,” said Wanda.
But that’s difficult to do in a deanery like the one Divine Infant belongs to, because each parish is so different. For each Divine Infant, struggling to maintain enrollment, there’s a St. John of the Cross, in Western Springs, which has multiple sections in each grade.
“They’re just not feeling the crunch like we’re feeling it,” Wanda said, so there’s little incentive to look for broad-based solutions.
Divine Infant’s enrollment is up about 25 percent in 2011-12 and sits at 207 students. But the increase was due in significant part to the closure of St. Domatilla School in Hillside. Many of those students ended up at Divine Infant this year.
Rather than localizing solutions, Wanda would prefer the archdiocese to restructure the Catholic school system to more resemble a public school model, taking control of all schools and, in his view, leveling the playing field between the well-off parishes and the ones struggling to maintain schools.
“The problem is the model,” said Wanda. “We’re working out of a parochial model and only thinking about Catholic schools in one way, because we’ve only had them one way.
“There are nostalgia, history and roots there, but at the same time we can get stuck in that, and it prevents us from moving forward.”
This article has been changed to correct the spelling of Carla Spielman’s name.