Will Oakland lose another Catholic school?

St. Bernard School
file photo by Ray Chavez/Tribune

Imagine being called to a parent meeting days before winter break and hearing that your child’s elementary school is running a $38,000-per-month deficit and will be closed for the spring semester. That, with a successful, parent-energized enrollment drive, it will re-open in the fall  — but no guarantees.

This is what’s happening at St. Bernard’s, a K-8 Catholic school on 62nd Avenue near International Boulevard whose enrollment has dropped to a mere 75 students (an average of about 8 students per grade). My colleague Kristin Bender wrote a short piece on the development last week, and I’m trying to get some more answers about the timing of the sudden announcement, whether the problems could have been addressed earlier, and what this development could mean for St. Bernard families — and for Catholic education in the city.

I wrote a series about three years ago about the uncertain future of Oakland’s Catholic schools, which had lost more than one-third of their enrollment between 2001 and 2006 — about twice the rate of other large urban areas in the country. Since 1996, four Catholic schools also located in East Oakland (St. Cyril, St. Paschal, St. Benedict and St. Louis Bertrand) have closed their doors. In 2006, the city’s total Catholic elementary school enrollment was about 1,700.

Everyone I interviewed for the series, including then-Superintendent Mark DeMarco, spoke of the need to do something different to keep urban Catholic schools vibrant and financially viable amid rising costs (salaries for lay people) and competition (tuition-free, independently run charter schools).

Rick Kruska, who succeeded DeMarco in the superintendent’s office in 2007, had plans of his own, including the creation of a consortium of schools. Now, Sister Barbara Bray is in charge of the school system, which includes schools in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. (Does this turnover at the top sound familiar to anyone?)

I hope to interview Bray tomorrow about her ideas, particularly about how the diocese (or the consortium) plans to help schools weather the economic recession, which is making it harder for families to come up with tuition money.

What future do you see for urban Catholic education?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • susan

    Its too bad!! The Catholic schools have really taken a hit. I smell another charter school…..Perhaps Aspire with the help of OUSD ??

  • ralph

    I do not know enough about Oakland Catholic Schools to know who attended, but I know in Detroit the last Catholic School Standing starting to serve the non-Catholic urban students who would have otherwise attended a public school.

  • Henry

    This is truly a sad story and as a product of an Oakland Catholic school, St. Augustine’s, which is now closed, I am disappointed by reading yet another story about the closing of an inner city educational institution. I recognize that the fiscal reality that exists at St. Bernard’s is not limited to this school, but pervades the financial foundation that virtually every private and public school is dealing with right now. However, I believe that the lack of leadership and vision from the Diocese is a significant factor that has overseen such a dramatic decline in the Catholic schools in our community. Consistently losing schools over a sustained period of time cannot be explained simply by pointing to the economy.

    The Bible states in Proverbs 29:18, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” I am hoping that with a new Bishop, we will see some inspired leadership that recognizes that the future of the Catholic church depends on introducing young people and their families to the faith, integrated with a high quality education. More specifically, it is essential that the Diocese lead a comprehensive marketing and branding effort to help prospective parents realize the incredible benefits of Catholic school. As part of the marketing effort, it should be presented how cost effective Catholic schools are when compared to ANY other educational venue including public schools.

    There is no question of the tremendous need for quality education and choices that serve the diversity of the students and families in the Bay Area. Having strong Catholic schools as part of the academic landscape is good for everyone. I hope that with new leadership at the Diocese, we will soon experience a revitalization of our schools that brings together the current and future parents, students, incredibly dedicated teachers, alumni and the community to sustain and grow this resource.

  • http://SaintElizabethHighSchool,Oakland Sister Mary Liam Brock, O.P.

    Thank you for your article of Saturday, January 2 “Catholic school’s future in question” I am the principal of a Catholic secondary school in the inner city of Oakland – St. Elizabeth High School. We are struggling due to a low enrollment. The majority of families, in our area, interested in sending their child to a Catholic school, cannot afford more than $100 to $300 a month. Needless to say, unless our Catholic schools can find funding sources, they will continue to struggle and gradually close in the urban areas. You might be interested in knowing that we have instituted a “flexible tuition plan”in order to make a Catholic school secondary education possible for low income families in this urban area. The Catholic Voice did an article on us in their last edition – we have put an ad of AC Buses and in other areas. Hopefully the word can get out that we are seeking ways to keep our Catholic schools affordable.
    Sister Mary Liam Brock

  • cranky teacher

    It would seem that charter or not, publicly funded education is drawing these students away from the parochial schools. Isn’t that a feather in the cap of OUSD?

    Just sayin’.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Cranky Teacher:

    If the families cannot afford $100 – $300 per month they are in OUSD schools by default. The cost for school lunches for two students is more than $100 per month and in public school that lunch is free.

  • Cranky Teacher

    This trend started long before the recession.

  • Cranky Teacher

    BTW, I know a student whose Catholic high school blocked her from taking her finals cause her hospitalized mother couldn’t pay the bills — now she may lose a year of education she completed because the school won’t give her the credits to carry over to her new public school.

    Does that sound like Christian charity???