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CURRENT ISSUE:  January 11, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Antioch parish divests funds from B of A
Sixth annual Walk for Life Jan. 23
Oakland’s St. Bernard School
will close temporarily

Faced with declining enrollment, a significant monthly deficit and a weak Bay Area economy, Father Roberto Flores, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in east Oakland, decided last month to suspend operation of the parish school by the end of January.

His decision, made in consultation with the parish council and the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools, will allow parents and school officials time to implement new recruitment and fundraising plans so it can reopen in August, said Holy Names Sister Barbara Bray, superintendent of schools.

CNS graphic/Emily Thompson
In the meantime, a plan is in place to bus the school’s 75 students to nearby St. Jarlath School, which has room to accommodate them. The school department will explore possible placements for any teachers or staff not absorbed into the St. Jarlath faculty, Sister Bray said.

Parents learned of the temporary closure at a Dec. 15 meeting. They were offered the transfer to St. Jarlath School, which shares a principal with St. Bernard, or enrollment in other neighboring Catholic schools with no change in tuition costs.

“We are committed to working with you during the transition to ensure the continuity of a quality Catholic education for your children,” Sister Barbara Bray wrote in a Jan. 1 letter to parents.

Some parents, stunned by the December announcement, began nightly demonstrations in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, asking the community to help save the school. Students held up signs saying, “Please help keep our school open” and “Please don’t close our school.”

Liz Saldana, a 1981 graduate of St. Bernard’s with two children currently at the school, said the demonstrations, which lasted for several days, were one way of drawing attention to the seriousness of the situation.

“Our kids need this school,” she said, noting that the school was a safety zone in a neighborhood where several murders had recently occurred.

A Hayward businesswoman, Saldana questioned the wisdom of suspending operations while trying to enroll new students. “How can you promote a school while there are no students in the school?” she asked, comparing it to a closed business trying to regain lost customers when it reopens.

Despite her reservations, Saldana said she was committed to doing whatever she can to ensure the school’s future, including tapping alumni of the 80-year-old school.

Sister Bray said parents will be key to restoring a financially viable school. “We are asking every family to make a commitment to recruit new students,” she said.

German Martinez, an experienced community organizer who helped turn around St. Martin de Porres School in west Oakland five years ago, has been hired to mobilize the effort.

He is optimistic that a similar success is possible at St. Bernard. “We can make it happen,” he said. “It is going to take a lot of work, but the parents already have the passion and commitment and it can be done.”

To start, Martinez will teach the parents how to recruit and retain new families for the school. They will visit other parents with children in pre-schools and CCD classes to explain the values of faith-based education and invite them to enroll at St. Bernard’s.

In late November, he canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and asking 100 families with school-age children about their attitudes towards Catholic education. “There was huge interest in going to a Catholic school,” he said. However, only 18 percent said they had the financial ability to pay for it.

He believes these and other parents can be convinced that financial sacrifices are worth it. “In a Catholic school, your child will learn in an atmosphere of respect. Discipline, structure and instruction come together in a faith-based environment where kids succeed,” he said.

Time to recruit new students is of the essence, he said, because applications for financial aid are due in March.

In her capacity as interim director of the diocesan consortium of urban Catholic schools, Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Barbara Dawson, president of St. Martin de Porres School, will focus on securing non-tuition funding for St. Bernard School.

Over the past five years, the school has received $1.2 million in diocesan subsidy. Given its current financial condition, it would need half of this year’s approximately $1 million diocesan subsidy for all its urban schools, a situation Sister Bray said was not acceptable.

Sixty students at St. Bernard’s currently receive tuition assistance from the BASIC (Bay Area Scholarships for Inner-City Children) Fund and FACE (Family Aid-Catholic Education), but both groups are uncertain about the level of future help because of recession-driven revenue losses from investments and donors.

St. Bernard School is located on 62nd Avenue in a largely Latino neighborhood where the median income is $24,000 for a family of four.

Tuition at St. Bernard’s is $4,000 per student, although the actual cost to educate a child is $8,000. The average tuition payment is $1700. The parish contributes $215 monthly from a special collection and parent fundraising activities bring another $1500 a month. The monthly deficit is running about $38,000, Sister Bray said.

She said the crisis at St. Bernard offers the Catholic community the opportunity to develop new funding models for all of its schools. This might include additional twinning of affluent parishes with those in need as well as securing substantial grants from untapped sources.

“Our story of educational success is so compelling, but we have to make it known,” she said. “I believe there are many donors out there who are willing to help, but we have to find ways to engage them.”

She said that many generations of Catholics have taken its schools for granted. Sustained primarily by women religious, who received minimal stipends for their work, the schools flourished without major financial problems.

But urban Catholic schools began to close across the nation when families moved to the suburbs and the cost of just wages for teachers could not be fully met by tuition.

In the Oakland Diocese over the past four decades, nine Catholic elementary schools have closed and another three merged into St. Martin de Porres School.

Located at the former St. Patrick and Sacred Heart schools, St. Martin de Porres has become a model of academic and financial success, largely through the efforts of Sister Dawson, German Martinez and principal Maurice Harper to empower parents to sustain the school. “Parents go to other parents. It’s their school,” Martinez said.

“We agree it will not be easy,” Sister Bray wrote to the St. Bernard parents. But she expressed confidence in their commitment to the school. “Although we cannot give you 100 percent assurance that this plan will work, we do know that it will not happen unless we have 100 percent support from every one of our current families.”

To that end, she is asking each family to commit to returning their children to St. Bernard School in the fall.

“This is a wrenching, difficult decision, but the best solution under the circumstances,” said Sister Bray. “We will all be working to make it succeed. The families at St. Jarlath are eager to welcome the St. Bernard students for the next five months.”

Eighty-four percent of those attending urban parish schools in the diocese are Catholic.

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