Less than two weeks after St. John’s congregation voted to close its pre-school through eighth-grade Lutheran school after 137 years, parents learned their children may still have the option of attending classes there.
Approximately 50 parents met in the St. John sanctuary on March 8 to hear Don Gillingham, the executive director of Walther Lutheran High School, discuss the possibility of opening a new elementary school at St. John’s. But for this to become a reality, parents will have to act quickly and commit their tuition in time for a March 15 meeting of the high school’s board.
Gillingham said the Walther Lutheran High School board would open and operate a school at St. John’s in Forest Park for at least two years if 60 students are enrolled in time for the meeting.
“We know that there is the potential to have a school at this location and it would be a strong one,” Gillingham said Thursday night. “Walther Lutheran has a stake in the existence of a school in this place.”
Walther Lutheran is located in Melrose Park and is the largest Lutheran high school in the state.
In late February, congregation members voted to close St. John’s Lutheran School at the end of the current school year, citing a steady decline in enrollment and revenue. According to the church’s business administrator, only 80 students are enrolled this year.
The church also took out a $204,000 loan to subsidize day-to-day operating costs for the 2006-07 year.
If the commitment to a new school is realized, Walther Lutheran would operate out of the existing facility at 305 Circle Ave. The parochial high school would also take on the financial responsibility while St. John’s congregation provides maintenance and utilities for the facility.
Teachers would be hired and paid by the high school.
“It boils down to Walther being responsible for the educational program,” Gillingham said.
The new school would have a new, yet to determined name, Gillingham said. It would not be called St. John’s Lutheran School. And the school might have a completely different staff.
“It’s our intention to start with a new staff,” Gillingham said. “People who are teaching at St. John’s are welcome to apply.”
Parents who heard Gillingham’s pitch cited a lack of quality instruction as one reason for the declining enrollment at the school. In recent years St. John’s has combined its classrooms to help cut expenses, a move that even the chairman of the church’s board of directors said could have been a detriment.
“Most of the people who have left St. John’s have left because of the quality of the teachers,” Audrey Gardner, the parent of a seventh-grader said.
If a new school is opened at St. John’s, administrators would seek to have one teacher for every 15 students, according to Gillingham. After two years, Walther Lutheran would re-evaluate the viability of maintaining a pre-school through eighth-grade curriculum.
“Our best case scenario is to give the school back to the congregation,” Gillingham said.
Before Gillingham spoke, the principals of three other Lutheran schools, St. Paul in Melrose Park, St. John in LaGrange, and Our Savior in Chicago, spoke to the parents about sending their children to those schools if Walther is unable to field a student body of at least 60 kids. According to a St. John’s official, only eight families in Forest Park pay tuition to the school.
“I’m very pleased,” Belinda Smith of Maywood and parent of three St. John’s students said. “The prayers that I’ve asked for have been answered. In my heart of hearts I want them to finish here.”
But other parents were troubled by the uncertainty. Gardner said she is leaning toward transferring her son to another Lutheran school. Cathy Walz, whose husband is the chairman of St. John’s Board of Directors, said she wasn’t sure what to do with her two children attending the school.
“I hope it works, but I need to see some of the details,” Walz said.
If Walther does open a new school at St. John, tuition would be $3,000 for a church member and $4,500 for a non-member. Currently, church members can send a child to the school for $2,730, while the rate for non-members is $4,200 for the first child. Under the current and proposed administration, discounts are available for families with more than one child enrolled.