St. Bernardine’s school almost made it to a century. Forest Park’s only Catholic school, at 815 S. Elgin Ave., opened in 1915, will close this week after 98 years.
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster these past few weeks,” said Megan Roach, mother of a fourth- and eighth-grader. “But [Principal Veronica] Cash has really held it together. And the kids are very resilient. They’ve accepted that this is what’s happening and made the most of it.”
“It’s like a death when a school closes,” said Catholic Schools Superintendent Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey last January when the news hit that the school was financially unsustainable.
The Office of Catholic Schools took over the 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 McCaughey at the time. “We just adore the principal and the board and appreciate all they have done for recruitment, but it’s all about the money.”
Former principal Eleanor Kraft, 1991-2004, said the school’s problems were a perfect storm of demographics, expenses and problems with Forest Park’s high school options.
With Forest Park losing 25 percent of its children between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. census, all the schools in town are contracting, Kraft said. “Even the public schools are losing students. The population just isn’t there.” Kraft also said the recession hit families hard and private school tuition was often cut as families struggled with job losses and bad economic times.
She also said the town’s lack of a local high school caused the school to lose entire families when the oldest graduated from middle school. “It wasn’t that they were unhappy with the school, they just couldn’t afford tuition at a Catholic high school, so they moved out further. We would have a family until the oldest child graduated.”
At the end of this year, the school’s population is a close-knit family of around 100 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Cash said.
Eighth graders graduated Friday, May 30. The small class of students will all attend different regional Catholic high schools. Some students in the younger grades will move on to District 91 schools, as well as other Catholic and public schools in the area.
In final years, a small, loyal group
As the school lost students over the past few years, rumors that the school would close made some parents pull out, while others moved in.
What made parents stay? Cash said the parents who held out for the final few years were committed to the small class sizes.
“Parents really liked the individual attention,” Cash said.
She also noted that the school had a student body of “true diversity.”
“The parents were really looking for that diverse student body,” she said. “We have about equal numbers of white, Hispanic and African American students and that’s what parents liked.”
The school was the first in the area to offer before and after care, as well as an early adopter of full-day kindergarten. The preschool through eighth -grade model was a great way for students to develop their character, Cash said.
“Students in eighth grade are grounded by being around younger children,” Cash said. “[Middle schoolers] know that the younger students look up to them, and they can see their own maturity and self-discipline in comparison to the younger kids. They are models for the younger children,” she said.
Students remember the best of times
Students published their favorite memories on a display near the school entrance.
“The 8th grade was fun learning songs and lines.”
“Winning the 2nd place trophy in basketball.”
“Finding Spike the class pet (caterpillar) behind the bookshelf.”
Students filled the final days with an ice cream social, a trip to the Forest Park Pool and a field trip to Cantigny. Cash accompanied the eighth graders on a trip to dinner and to see Blue Man Group. Class pets were given to student families.
Roach said there wasn’t a dry eye in the church when the choir at the last Spring Concert sang Edelweiss. “It’s very sad for the parents,” she said.
Kraft and Cash reminisced with 23-year veteran teacher Vicki Kirchen about some of the students who had passed through.
“St. B’s” as it was affectionately called by generations of families was one of the area Catholic schools with a high percentage of non-Catholic students, yet the students attended weekly mass and Cash and Kraft think the “message of service” rubbed off on so many of the alumni.
“In 98 years we graduated many successful people,” Kraft said. “But we also graduated people who have made a difference in their community,” she said.
Kraft reminisced fondly about alums who went into the Peace Corps, a graduate who works to bring prosthetic limbs to Ecuador, a graduate who became a local police officer.
“These are some of the students who really stand out for us,” Kraft said. “We’ve had so many good friends and students who come back and visit the school,” she said
Teachers’ futures uncertain
To add to the pain, Cash and Kraft confirmed that even though the archdiocese has put St. B’s teachers on a priority list, many of the school’s 11 teachers have not found new jobs. “We had very little turnover here,” said Kraft. “The archdiocese encourages teachers to continue their education, so many of our teachers have master’s degrees and lots of experience.” That makes the experienced teachers at St. B’s more expensive for another school district to hire. Compounding the problem is a glut of qualified teachers who have just been let go when Chicago Public Schools closed 50 schools. Cash is one of the lucky ones. She confirmed that she will be principal at St. Leonard’s in Berwyn next year.
“The students are very concerned for the teachers,” Cash said. “It’s touching. They all know where they’ll be next year, but they are worried about their teachers.”
Roach confirmed that her fourth grade daughter had asked about the future of her beloved teacher.
“She keeps asking what will Mr. Baumann do? She’s very concerned. It’s a terrible time to be looking for a teaching job,” Roach said.
Sports kept team-spirit alive
Kraft and Cash spoke of the school’s long history with and in the Village of Forest Park.
“We’ve always worked so well with District 91 and the village,” Kraft said. Although St. B’s never had its own gym, they had no problem practicing with sports teams at the St. John [Walther Academy] gym or the public school facilities.
Roach, who was also school athletic director, said soccer, basketball and track at the school made the students closer.
“We just had our athletic banquet and we had 100 percent participation in the upper grades five through eight in at least one sport,” Roach said. “It was really great to be able to compete with the kids and build those teams.”
Village steps up in crisis
The village has always supported the school, Kraft said. Kraft remembered an incident in 1996 where a parental custody battle spilled into the school during weekly mass. According to Chicago Tribune accounts of the time, a 9-year-old child’s relatives tried to abduct the boy, grabbing him by the arm and trying to pull him away during the service. Kraft and about five others jumped to the boy’s rescue and the boy’s estranged father allegedly sprayed the teachers and surrounding students with pepper spray.
Kraft said that awful day was one where she realized how important the Village of Forest Park was to St. Bernardine’s as police and emergency medical staff quickly responded to the events.
“We helped the police identify the people who did it and they went to court and were punished. The boy graduated from St. Bernardine’s and told us in eighth grade he was grateful that he had the stability of the school,” Kraft said.
The Village of Forest Park passed a resolution honoring the school at the Village Council meeting May 28.
“We honor the educational commitment of St. Bernardine School throughout its great history, and with a heavy heart, recognize the need for the closure yet regret its future absence,” Mayor Tony Calderone read at the meeting.
The resolution was presented at the all-school Mass Sunday, June 2 at St. Bernardine’s Church.
The school building just underwent a $250,000 tuck-pointing and the parish has received inquiries from other schools about renting the building. But so far, Kraft said, no specific entity has made an offer.
“The school closing is a big loss for ourselves and the community,” said Cash in January. “Maybe we won’t know how big of a loss until later.”