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CURRENT ISSUE:  June 7, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 11   •   Oakland, CA
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St. Bernard School to remain
closed for at least a year

Shuttered since February when finances and low enrollment forced its temporary closure, St. Bernard Elementary School in East Oakland will not reopen in September as originally hoped.

Divine Word Father Roberto Flores, pastor, told parents in a May 19 letter that the school would remain closed because two requirements — enrollment of 130 students by May 15 and sufficient funds to cover expenses — had not been met “despite all our efforts.”

“This is a setback for all of us,” he wrote, but “we still have hope that we will have a school at St. Bernard in the future.”

Two committees of parents came together after Father Flores decided in December to suspend operation of the school. They had been working aggressively to enroll students and conduct fundraisers, but by the May 15 deadline their efforts had fallen short. A request for a one-month extension was denied, committee members said.

Seventy-eight children were registered and another 38 applications had been issued but not returned by May 15, according to Sister Barbara Bray, superintendent of schools.

Juana Barajas, a parent of two St. Bernard students and member of the fundraising committee, said she feels “betrayed” by the decision. “At times, I felt like the administration and school dept. didn’t really want us to organize. We’d focus on one thing and they’d add another hurdle.”

The eight parents in the enrollment committee met weekly to plan various outreach efforts to encourage parents to choose St. Bernard for their children, a committee member explained. They spoke at the end of Sunday Masses, set up an information booth outside the church, gave presentations to the parents of children enrolled in religious education classes, and distributed flyers and brochures.

However, some members of the committee said they were thwarted by the administration in efforts to expand their enrollment efforts to the broader community.

“Everything in our power to do, we did,” said one parent.

The ad hoc finance committee sold food and flowers after Sunday Masses, sponsored a carnival and raffle for Valentine’s Day, and organized a fundraising trip to Reno.

“We had a band willing to donate their time for a major fundraiser, but we couldn’t do it until we knew that St. Bernard School would reopen and that the profits would go to the school,” said Barajas, a member of the school board for several years. “We thought we could raise $150,000 from the benefit, but what would we do with that money if the school didn’t reopen?”

Raising funds would be difficult

Because St. Bernard School is located in an East Oakland neighborhood were the median income is $24,000 for a family of four, Barajas said her committee knew that raising the needed funds would be difficult.

“That’s why we helped with enrollment — the more students, the more tuition” she said.

The majority of the 75 students attending the school when it closed in February were receiving tuition assistance from the BASIC (Bay Area Scholarships for Inner City Children) Fund and FACE (Family Aid-Catholic Education).

Most of the students moved to nearby St. Jarlath School, which shared a principal, Ellen Spencer, with St. Bernard’s. The Dept. of Catholic Schools provided a bus to transport the students to and from their new campus.

Some students, however, enrolled in other Catholic schools. Barajas placed her kindergartener and fifth grader, along with three nieces and nephews, at St. Anthony School. “But my heart remains at St. Bernard and I want to bring all of them back here,” she said.

She hopes the committees will continue their work, especially since a new principal Marcos Avila, has been appointed for St. Bernard. “Mr. Avila is going to take a special interest to support and work for our school,” wrote Father Flores in announcing the appointment and the formation of a leadership team to work with him.

Bussing program could continue

Father Flores said he wants to continue the bussing program to St. Jarlath School, if enough parents request the service. Likewise, he is looking into whether the 21st Century After School program can continue at the school site.

The permanent closure of St. Bernard School would bring to 10 the number of Catholic elementary schools that have closed in the Oakland Diocese over the past 40 years. Another three merged into St. Martin de Porres School in West/Northwest Oakland.

Sister Barbara Bray, superintendent of schools, said the School Dept. is looking at new models of Catholic schools that might help bring schools such as St. Bernard back to life and sustain others that are at risk.

“We need systemic change in financing and governance,” she said. “We hope to increase partnerships with our local colleges to bring new resources to our campuses as well.”

A strategic plan for Catholic schools in the diocese, now in the development stage, is scheduled for implementation in January.

Father Flores reassured parents that “we are continuing to work to reopen St. Bernard School, although we have postponed the possible reopening to August 2011.”

Barajas echoed the sentiment. “We are still working. We will go to the end” to make it happen.

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