A Publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland  
Catholic Voice Online Edition  
Front Page In this Issue Around the Diocese Letters Bishop's Column News in Brief Calendar
Mission Statement
Contact Us
Publication Dates
Back Issues

CURRENT ISSUE:  July 2, 2007VOL. 45, NO. 13Oakland, CA

Berkeley parish announces closure of its school in June '08

Father Stephan Kappler
Parochial Administrator
St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Berkeley

St. Joseph the Worker School in Berkeley will close its doors in June 2008 after 130 years of operation, but the building will continue to be an educational presence in the community as a charter school.

Father Stephan Kappler, the parish’s parochial administrator, said declining enrollment, high tuition costs, and a serious parish deficit were the major factors leading to the decision, which he made in consultation with the parish’s pastoral council and finance council.

He is currently negotiating with a charter school about a shared-use lease of the building. “With a charter school on site, we will be able to show our continued commitment to offer high quality, accessible education to the children of our parish,” he said. The rent will provide much needed income to help the parish itself survive, he added.

Parishioners were notified through a letter read at all weekend Masses, June 23-24. On June 21, the 65 families whose children are enrolled for the 2007-2008 school year received the same letter in the mail.
That day parents also received a letter from St. Joseph’s principal Natalie Tovani-Walchuk outlining next year’s school plans. They include combined classes starting with first and second grades and no kindergarten.

At a town hall meeting Father Kappler held on June 26, a small group of parishioners came to ask questions about the school’s last year of operation. The gathering included a few self-described “old-time parents” like Stella Perkins and Wanda Hundley whose children went through St. Joseph’s in the early 1960s. They were there to offer their support for Father Kappler’s decision.

Hundley has a grandson who attends a charter high school in Oakland and reported he is happy with its accelerated science program because it will prepare him for potential careers. Some charter schools are better than “a lot of parochial schools,” she said.

Father Kappler told The Catholic Voice that St. Joseph School has the capacity to enroll 220-plus students, but enrollment over the past five years has ranged from 109 students in 2002-2003 to 128 students in 2006-2007. “In 2002 one of the classes had just six students,” he said.

“Closing wouldn’t be an issue if we had a waiting list,” Father Kappler told The Voice.

Years ago, during the golden age of Catholic education, there was a strong, loyal backlog of parents deeply committed to the school, he said in his letter.

“Today the situation is very different. Only a third of our current students are parishioners’ children, so very few families of this parish have a close connection to the school, least of all the ever-growing Latino community.”

The parish has 1469 registered parishioners. The average Sunday attendance is approximately 550, with half of those attending the Spanish Mass.

Latinos are the fastest growing population in the parish, but most of them cannot afford to send their children to the parish school. Tuition at St. Joseph’s during the next school year will be $5490 per child.
The school has been operating at a consistent deficit and has survived only with the help of parish and diocesan subsidies. During 2005-2006 the parish subsidized the school with $28,068 and the diocese provided $158,900.

For the 2006-2007 school year, the diocese provided a $99,000 subsidy and the parish added another $28,000. Additionally, 77 students received some form of financial aid, but the school is still about $59,000 short to close out the end of this year.

“Thus, we are discussing right now out of whose pocket the money will come,” said Father Kappler.
For the coming 2007-2008 school year, the diocese is prepared once again to provide a $99,000 subsidy with the parish needing to pick up the rest of the uncovered cost. “But since we do not have the kind of funds needed, we will have to take out a loan from the diocese and then pay it back after the school is closed,” Father Kappler said.

Rent from the new charter school will enable the parish to pay back the loan, he said.

The parish can no longer afford to keep pouring money into the school because of its own precarious situation, he added.

“St. Joseph’s has been operating at a deficit for many years,” he said in his letter. Last year in an effort to stop the hemorrhaging, the parish embarked upon a concerted push for increased financial stewardship to help address its long list of deferred maintenance needs.

Although the Mass attendees’ contributions increased the average monthly Sunday collection income from $3,007 to $4,002, it’s not enough, Father Kappler said.

The bottom line in this economic scenario, said the priest, is the survival of the parish itself. St. Joseph the Worker has to get back on solid financial footing, so “that generations to come can find their spiritual home here.”

To ensure that this happens, the parish needs a second source of income, he explained. A charter school will make up the deficit, freeing up the parish to make needed seismic repairs on buildings and get on with its life and ministry.

According to the proposed lease agreement, the future charter school and the parish will have a shared arrangement with the building reverting back to the parish after school hours so the parish can continue to hold parish functions there.

Tina Solovieff, a student at St. Joseph’s in 1959-60, said she thinks the charter school “is the best case scenario. It will be so good to see this transformation happening instead of the parish letting the poor building stay empty or turned into condos.”

Charter schools are familiar territory for Father Kappler. When he went to St. Louis Bertrand Parish several years ago as pastor, his predecessor had invited a charter school to operate the former parish school. Father Kappler worked with that particular organization for a year before inviting another charter school to assume operations. “We had a good relationship,” said the priest.

By moving to a charter model at St. Joseph’s “we will be able to develop creative after-school CCD/faith formation programs for the kids there in addition to the already existing CCD program,” said Father Kappler in his letter. Approximately 120 kids were enrolled in CCD this past year.

Father Kappler said he decided to keep the parochial school open one more year to give parents the time to make other educational arrangements for their children.

“I am aware that this school transition is a very difficult process, especially for all the students, parents, faculty and staff,” he wrote. “The year should give ample time to look for alternative placements either at other Catholic schools in the area, or at the charter school that will start operating for the 2008-2009 school year.”

Catholic schools in neighboring El Cerrito – St. Jerome and St. John the Baptist -- have openings, but the School of the Madeleine, the only remaining Catholic elementary school in Berkeley, does not. It already has a waiting list, said Father Kappler.

But Vallejo residents Tamara and David Melgoza, the parents of a nine-year old daughter enrolled at St. Joseph’s, said they aren’t interested in shopping around for another school. The couple have jobs in Berkeley so St. Joseph’s is the perfect school choice.

“It’s so convenient for us.” They came to the town hall meeting to learn more about the proposed charter school.

Jill Sanders, on the other hand, is “heartbroken” that the parochial school will close. Her son just finished kindergarten and she would like to keep him at St. Joseph’s. But she has decided to transfer him to St. Leo School in Oakland “because I don’t like the idea of the first and second grades being together. It could be confusing for him.”

Dawit Kidne has two children going into the third and fifth grades, and “likes them being in a Catholic school,” but, like Sanders, he also is not drawn to the idea of combined classes. “I’m trying to decide whether they are good for kids.”

Despite declining enrollment and financial problems, St. Joseph the Worker School has done well academically, receiving its accreditation this past year from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

In her letter to parents Natalie-Tovani-Walchuk, principal, said, “Our classes will continue to be small, providing for plenty of individualized attention and academic support.”

The school will have full music, library, science and art programs, including the FOSS hands-on-science kits to provide “a rich science experience,” she wrote.

“The art room will house our Artworks programs and allow for messier and more exciting art activities,” she added. Tovani-Walchuk said the school will also offer an introductory Spanish class to all grades.
Tovani-Walchuk herself is moving on to another administrative position within the Oakland diocesan schools system. St. Joseph’s new principal will be Matthew Ruggiero, a current faculty member.

Ruggiero will also assist in teaching core subjects of math and language arts in grades 1-3. Many other current faculty members will continue there as well.

Bishop Allen Vigneron said he accepted Father Kappler’s request to close St. Joseph’s School “with regret.”

“Such a decision is extremely difficult for the families who are directly affected,” he said. “I recognize the emotional pain that this closure creates.”

The bishop acknowledged that parishes “must make difficult economic decisions in order to remain viable.” The current diocesan subsidy of $99,000 is inadequate to meet the difference between what parents pay in tuition and the real cost per pupil, he said.

“It is not possible to increase the subsidy,” said the bishop. “The parish experiences the same limitations (as the diocese) and is limited in what it can contribute to subsidize the school.”

The bishop said both he and the Diocesan School Board “are deeply concerned about the recent history of urban school closures.”

In June 2004, the diocese closed three schools in Oakland -- St. Augustine, St. Paschal Baylon, and Sts. Cyril-Louis Bertrand.

Presentation High School, which had operated for 110 years across the street from St. Joseph’s under the auspices of the Presentation Sisters, closed in 1988. Condominiums now occupy the site.
Bishop Vigneron said in his statement that he and the Diocesan School Board are exploring a series of options that could continue and strengthen Catholic education.

The bishop said he hopes to announce a set of plans in the near future that will assist other financially imperiled schools.


Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland

El Heraldo

Movie Reviews

Mass Times

Catholic Voice


Next Front Page Article

back to topup arrow


Copyright © 2005 The Catholic Voice, All Rights Reserved. Site design by Sarah Kalmon-Bauer.