Vicki Kirchen, a kindergarten teacher at St. Bernardine School, said that when she first started 20 years ago, there were two full kindergarten classes with 25 students each. This year, she teaches the single kindergarten class and it has 11 kids.
Though the Archdiocese of Chicago has expressed concern over low enrollment at St. Bernardine, according to one school official, the school is heading in the right direction. Despite rumors, there has been no talk of closing the nearly 100-year-old institution.
“We’re not in big trouble,” said Robert Maas, principal of the Roman Catholic grade school in Forest Park. But “every year that we don’t have more and more students, we face a deficit.”
With 140 kids spread from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, St. Bernardine is about 60 students shy of its target enrollment. Two hundred is the “magic number” that would stabilize the school’s funding and bring it off the archdiocese’s watch list, Maas said.
“More importantly, we would have room to make a bigger difference in town,” he said.
The bulk of funding for the private school comes from tuition, which is $3,750 per year for parishioners and $4,860 for non-parishioners. At the same time, it costs the school more than $7,000 to educate each child. The tuition prices are reasonable, Maas said, compared to the 25 other Catholic schools that are all within a 5-mile radius of St. Bernardine.
Along with trimming $100,000 from this year’s budget, Maas said the school does whatever it can to keep the costs of tuition down. Multiple fundraisers are held throughout the year, which account for about 10 percent of the school’s funding. Bingo, for one, brought in more than $40,000 in 2009 and the annual walk-a-thon held last Thursday raised $18,000.
Aside from a couple of grants and titles that the school earns, the rest of the expenses fall to St. Bernardine parish. The parish has been contributing roughly 25 percent of the school’s funding, said Maas, though the archdiocese would like it to be no more than 20 percent. Last year, the archdiocese gave $100,000 to help the parish cover the deficit, according to the Rev. George Velloorattil.
“This year, enrollment is up so it shouldn’t be that difficult,” Velloorattil said. “The more kids, the better it is. Financially, we will be much better off.”
Enrollment, in fact, has slightly increased over the last couple of years with 20 more kids compared to 2007.
“Over the past few years we have shown some growth,” Kirchen said. “That’s a good sign for us.”
For some families, the small size is one of the advantages over other schools because it leads to a tighter community among parents and students.
“It’s a big family here,” said Joelle Goode, who has three kids at St. Bernardine. “The eighth graders know the 3 year olds and the 3 year olds know the eighth graders.”
Though some families have been worried about the possibility of St. Bernardine School closing, Maas assured that it is only a rumor and not going to happen any time soon.
“We are here to stay,” he said. “This is a fixture in the community and the community needs this.”
St. Bernardine School, located at 815 Elgin Ave., employs 20 people, including 11 full-time teachers. About 40 to 50 percent of the student body is not Catholic.