It has been a bag of mixed blessings this year at St. Bernardine School on Elgin Avenue. Enrollment numbers are down, but on target with revised projections. Budget subsidies are crucial, but donations are coming in.
For more than a year now, the small Catholic school has wrestled with its finances as fewer and fewer students bring their tuition dollars to the institution. But after tightening the fiscal belt, administrators are pleased that enrollment is on target and parishioners are jumping in to lend support.
“I think there’s a spirit here, there’s a tradition,” Donna Gawlas said.
Gawlas is the director of the school’s learning center and this year marks her fifth as a faculty member. Her history with the 90-year-old school goes much deeper though. Not only did her three children attend St. Bernardine, but so did her husband.
Rev. Patrick Tucker said those types of connections that families have with St. Bernardine have helped save the school, at least for now. Tucker said he can’t guarantee the school’s future, but he is among the faculty and administration who are optimistic.
A fundraising effort among parishioners of the affiliated church brought in some $80,000 to subsidize the budget, Tucker said. Over the summer, the school picked up another 30 students to bring enrollment in line with the 125 they were projecting. A combination of donations and savings helped keep the school open for the current year, but expenses ate up 40 percent of the school’s savings account, Tucker noted.
“We were worried that we would wipe out our savings,” Tucker said.
All of this makes hitting enrollment projections over the next couple of years crucial, according to Sister Francis Fitzpatrick, an assistant superintendent for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Last September, St. Bernardine lost some 21 percent of its student body at the same time a $230,000 deficit was projected.
“For years we just assumed people were going to come to our school,” Fitzpatrick said.
To combat declining enrollments and prevent tuition costs from skyrocketing, the diocese and individual schools are being called on to do more advertising. St. Bernardine has its first ever billboard advertisement over I-290, which was donated to the school. This type of marketing is new for the church, Fitzpatrick said, but necessary.
Last year, Fitzpatrick’s office closed two or three Catholic schools in the Chicago area. In the years prior to that, more than a dozen were closed in a single year, she said.
Ideally, St. Bernardine will be able to attract at least another 50 students over the next two years, Fitzpatrick said, but the diocese is not enforcing rigid number limits at this point.
“I’m very hopeful,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m hopeful because of the enthusiasm the pastor has.”
Peggy Milarczyk is an eighth-grade math teacher at St. Bernardine and said the morale among teachers is upbeat. Faculty members aren’t running out of the building at the end of the school day, and the uncertainty surrounding the school’s future isn’t frightening people off, Milarczyk said.
“I really wanted to come back,” she added.
Principal Eleanor Kraft said the school cut a full-time Spanish teacher and four teaching aides prior to the start of the school year. The core of the faculty remains relatively unchanged, Kraft said, and part-time teachers are instructing music, physical education, art and among others.