BUFFALO — Last January, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo announced that it would be closing 10 parish schools at the end of the school year, displacing some 1,000 students. This week, the Buffalo News ran “Parents, parishes scramble to figure out fate of displaced students,” a feature by Jay Tokasz on how those students’ parents are handling the transition, and how the schools that did remain open are going to deal with an influx of what has been projected as 70 percent of that 1,000, potentially even more.
The story made me think of my own parochial school, St. Bernadette of Orchard Park, which will close at the end of this year. It’s sad to think of my alma mater shuttered, but it’s sadder still to think about the students who are having a difficult time finding a new home.
A friend of mine works at SS Peter and Paul in Hamburg, one of the schools that will be seeing an influx, next year. According to the News, so far, 118 students have enrolled, the school’s largest in more than a decade. My friend told me a story of a little girl who toured the new school, a few weeks ago.
“She was walking around with her mom, looking around, and suddenly, she burst into tears,” my friend told me. “Crying, she said, ‘I just want my old school. I want my friends. I want to go home.’”
That story hit me right in my soft spot, the same place the entire issue continues to hit me, as it develops. Parents are still protesting outside the house of Bishop Richard Malone, some threatening lawsuits and seeking Vatican intervention. Others are choosing homeschooling or public school education.
But that little girl’s story sounds so much like my own experience, I can’t help but feel that, no matter what education option those families choose, many of those children are in the same boat. When I spent nine years at St. Bernadette, the school became my home. The 24-odd students with whom I graduated had mostly started there with me, almost a decade before. We knew more than each other’s names: We knew what each other ate for lunch every day, their pets’ names, whether they were good first picks for dodgeball or kickball. We were closer than classmates, after that long a tenure. And our teachers, well, they knew us just as well. It wasn’t just a building where we went, every day, and the people in it weren’t just faces with names. It was home.
Sister Carol Cimino, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, said she wants Catholic education to be “so attractive and academically rigorous that parents don’t ask whether they can afford tuition, but whether they can afford not to send their children to a Catholic school.”
That focus on academics and exceptionalism sees many schools hiring new teachers, building new labs and utilizing classrooms that had been under-used in the past is exciting and necessary, but my heart hearkens more to the mission of Patrick Riester, principal at SS Peter and Paul.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” Riester told the News. “I love to see my school grow, but I don’t like to see it happen at the cost of other Catholic schools closing.”
He plans to hire seven or eight teachers, some of whom may come from shuttered institutions. He added that familiar faces may help students like that little girl feel more at home, in their new surroundings.
“We have major healing that needs to be done,” Riester said. “The bottom line is, we’re left to welcome these children and keep them in Catholic education, and we take that as a serious challenge.”