St. Bernardine, Forest Park’s only Catholic school, knows a thing or two about near-death experiences. Always a small institution, long a fragile school, St. Bernardine has ridden the roller coaster of enrollment spikes and harrowing declines. It has also weathered an era when the Chicago archdiocese had one solution to financially troubled schools – and that was to shutter them.
Now, wisely, the archdiocese has taken a different tack, recognizing perhaps the enormous asset that its network of elementary schools across the Chicago area truly represents. A parish school is an essential ingredient in a vital community life. A neighborhood church with a failed school hulking next door is a church lacking a mission and a connection to its people. Plus, the reality is that many, especially the more urban Catholic schools, now also serve a geography beyond parish lines and serve a determined group of parents, often non-Catholic parents, who need a faith-based alternative to failed public schools. The archdiocese has correctly recognized educating these kids is a centerpiece of its mission.
In Forest Park, St. Bernardine is currently in another of its more rapidly recurring enrollment troughs. A hike in tuition, a necessary effort to collect past-due tuition, lopped some 40 students off the enrollment roster for the current school year. That number is only alarming when you see that the total enrollment at St. Bernardine last year was just 140 students. A school of 100 students spread across nine grades is not viable, financially or educationally.
Also, the school is about to lose another principal when Robert Maas departs in the spring. Principal roulette in recent years has meant a lack of stability and vision for this small gem of a school.
Enter the archdiocese. It has enrolled St. B in a three-year program called AIM. The downtown offices of the archdiocese will, we hope, bring to bear its considerable expertise in hiring a new principal. The archdiocese brings marketing expertise, one aspect of which is a reconstituted school board which adds much needed local talent, some from beyond the school and parish boundaries. And, of course, for this short-term period, the archdiocese also brings financial muscle that will relieve the parish of its considerable burden to support the school.
Unspoken, at least publicly, is the last-ditch nature of this effort. We don’t expect the Chicago archdiocese to be running St. Bernardine long term. Nor should it be. The AIM program is a three-year lifeline to see what is possible, to see if St. Bernardine and its constituencies – parish members, school staff and parents, the Forest Park community, the archdiocese – can rally to move this school toward a sustainable future.
We know this plainly: St. B is worth fighting for. Its legacy as a vital part of Forest Park and its future as an integral player in Forest Park make this the moment for all of us to recommit to this school.