Forest Park’s only Catholic school, St. Bernardine, affectionately called “St. B’s” by alumni and parents, has held on despite turnovers as principal and other close calls.

In 2005, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced the closing of two nearby schools, St. Mary of Celle in Berwyn and St. Edmund in Oak Park. While St. Mary closed, St. Edmund partnered with Dominican University and remains open, although its enrollment is on the lower range for viable Catholic schools.

In 2006, St. Bernardine’s School suffered a near-death experience when it lost 40 students over the summer. Then-pastor Rev. Pat Tucker publicly expressed pessimism that the school could carry on and gave it “one more year.” Larry White, the school’s principal, left the school that year, and Eleanor Kraft, a retired St. Bernardine’s principal, returned for an interim term. The current principal, Robert A. Maas, will retire this year, he told the school board late in 2011.

But community loyalty and devoted alumni and parents have kept the almost-100-year-old school fighting. And the school is now getting help from the archdiocese, which has changed policies about closing schools since 2005.

“[The archdiocese] have changed their approach,” said Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Catholic schools. Closing the schools in 2005 was “hugely painful,” she said. “[The Office of Catholic Schools] realized that the schools had to be given a chance to turn around. We are making an effort to rewrite the script: As long as there is a need for a school and as long as families need it, it will stay there.” The archdiocese is sharing expertise in budgeting, marketing, fundraising and helping hire personnel under the pilot Archdiocesan Initiative Model (AIM) program.

The school, at 815 Elgin Ave., hosts an open house Sunday, Jan. 29 from 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.

While the parish is no longer contributing to the day-to-day running of the school, St. Bernardine’s Church has invested $250,000 in tuckpointing the entire school this fall and will begin to remodel inside next year, said Mary Turek, the school board president. “The church is still responsible for the physical plant of the building.”

Enrollment has been rocky, but there are positive signs, says Della De Sonia, the school secretary. “We have 16 three-year-olds in pre-school and that’s more than we’ve ever had [recently].”

Turek says the school has revamped academics, with new emphasis on Inquiry Based Learning units in which students collaborate on different projects that touch on different disciplines. “It gets them away from the textbooks,” says Turek. St. Bernardine’s also prides itself on language instruction with new Rosetta Stone interactive computer programs, which offer individually paced language lessons in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and other languages.

The school has experienced breakthroughs in early reading education by adopting the Superkids reading curriculum in 2010 designed by Rowland Reading, which features the serialized adventures of 14 Superkid characters. They have also beefed up mathematics instruction, said Turek. “Three eighth-graders who tested at St. Ignatius [College Preparatory High School] got in last year, and that says something. We’ve had students accepted last year at Trinity, Nazareth and the Chicago Academy for the Arts.”

Athletic Director Megan Roach says the school has put new emphasis on soccer, basketball and track. “The program has amazingly grown so much and started with just a few kids,” she said. “Like most Catholic schools we have a no-cut policy, and everyone who’s eligible gets to play.” Although the school has no gymnasium Ð and never has had one Ð the athletes practice at St. John’s Lutheran Church, the park district and Dist. 91 schools.

The school still has a strong Catholic emphasis and children attend Catholic mass regularly, although almost half of the students are not Catholic.

St. Bernardine’s still has a long journey before it can reach an enrollment that would make it financially viable. But with new emphasis on marketing and with parent loyalty, Turek hopes more Forest Parkers will consider St. Bernardine’s. “If we can get anywhere near 200 [students] I would be jumping for joy.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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