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?