St. Bernardine School, Forest Park’s only Catholic school, will close in June, Principal Veronica Skelton Cash told parents at a meeting Thursday night.

Representatives for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Catholic Schools said that the 98-year-old school serving children in preschool through eighth grade was no longer financially sustainable. The school is at 815 S. Elgin Ave.

“It’s a big loss for ourselves and the community,’ said Principal Veronica Skelton Cash. “Maybe we won’t know how big of a loss until later.”

The archdiocese will award $1,000 subsidies to all St. Bernardine students with accounts in good standing if they continue their education at another Catholic school next year, they said. Base tuition for the school had been $4,300 for parishioners, $5,505 for non-parishioners with a second child able to attend for half price.

Monday, the atmosphere at the school was sad, said Cash, but that teachers let the children know they still have a school year to finish. “[Students] have a responsibility to themselves to work hard,” she said. “We’re going to go out with grace and dignity, celebrating 98 years of excellence here.”

“Routines are really important for kids,” she added.

The Office of Catholic Schools took over reins at St. Bernardine last year in a program called Archdiocese Initiative Model (AIM).

“We had hoped to be able to turn the school around in three years,” said Catholic Schools Superintendent Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey. “We just adore the principal and the board and appreciate all they have done for recruitment, but it’s all about the money.”

McCaughey said the low 101-student enrollment could not get anywhere near sustaining the school’s 16 staff members and that the program would have to be subsidized by around $5,000 per student.

“Numbers like that were bound to come to our attention. That’s not sustainable,” she said.

“I feel like the Archdiocese was very honest with us,” said parent and Athletic Director Megan Roach. “I told my kids, ‘I don’t regret our time here. I don’t regret sticking it out and trying to rally in the past three years.'” Roach said she appreciated the school letting them know sooner rather than later, so they were able to make future school plans for their daughter in 4th grade.

“It was a recent decision and I appreciate the archdiocese’s honesty,” Roach said.

The archdiocese will sponsor a Catholic schools fair at the school on Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. where parents can meet representatives from other Catholic schools, Cash said.

Parents also received a letter from Cardinal Francis George urging them to stick with Catholic schools.

“We are going to do everything possible to help you make a good transition to another Catholic school in your area,” he wrote. “The building may be different, but the values and the faith are the same.”

“We’re blessed we live in an area that has lots of Catholic schools nearby. We lived on an army base before that, and there was no [Catholic option] close by,” Roach said.

Parents had started a development campaign and the school seemed to be rallying against all odds last year, but funds in the archdiocese were drying up as well, McCaughey said.

McCaughey noted that the shrinking number of children in Forest Park made the demographic trends look bad for keeping the school, affectionately known to its families as “St. B’s,” afloat. Between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Federal Census, Forest Park lost 23 percent of its children.

With the archdiocese’s help, the school improved marketing and board members and staff participated in professional development over the year, but it was too little, too late, said board member Mary Turek.

“It’s a perfect storm of so many different things,” Turek said.

She said that programs such as the Big Shoulders Fund, which subsidizes Catholic schools, stop at the Chicago border.

“We’re about a mile away from being eligible,” said Turek, who pointed out that five other Catholic schools were in the immediate area and competition for fewer students was high.

“I feel so bad for the kids and the staff who work here,” Turek said.

Last year the parish invested $250,000 in tuckpointing at the school, and this year many of the classrooms were repainted.

“It’s never looked better,” said McCaughey. She said the school buildings belong to the parish.

Cash said the archdiocese would be helping to place the 16 teachers in other positions. “We’re sending out letters of recommendation.”

Cash herself will be looking for a job. “I knew it would be a challenge,” Cash said, but I thought I’d have more time. Forest Park really welcomed me and I thank them for that.”

The last day of school for students kindergarten through seventh grade will be June 7 and 8th graders will graduate on May 31. Cash also said that the school had openings in the preschool for the second half of the year for new families who needed a temporary preschool solution.

St. Bernardine School’s decline

St. Bernardine School managed to hang on for six more years after a loss of 40 students over the summer of 2006. At that time, then-pastor Rev. Pat Tucker, known for his wry realism, estimated publicly that the school could last, “one more year.”

Principal Larry White left and former principal Eleanor Kraft filled in for an interim term. Principal Robert Mass was hired, but he announced he was leaving in the late fall 2011. Enrollment had hovered around 120 students.

By then, the recession had taken its toll on many families who could no longer afford tuition.

In late 2011, the archdiocese took over the school and reconfigured the school board to a Board of Specified Jurisdiction model. Parents and alumni rallied and planned a development and marketing campaign with the help of the Office of Catholic Schools.

Up-and-coming Principal Veronica Skelton Cash, who had been handpicked to attend a special school for Catholic school principals at the Archdiocese Leadership Academy, was hired.

But enrollment fell again to around 100 this year. The archdiocese decided to close the school and announced the closing on Jan. 10.

Jean Lotus

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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