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September 5, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 15   •   Oakland, CA
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Above and left, parents, students and alumni join in a question and answer. Below, among the diocesan representatives to discuss a new beginning for St. Elizabeth, from left: Gloria Espinoza, associate director of Human Resources; Rev. Alexander Castillo, priest secretary to the bishop; Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ; and Rev. Larry Young, interim superintendent of schools.

St. Elizabeth High School to be site of new Cristo Rey school

St. Elizabeth High School will become the site of a new Cristo Rey high school, Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, told a standing-room audience of students, parents, teachers and alumni who filled the gym of the venerable Oakland institution on Sept. 7.

“My goal, my one desire,” he said, “is how can I save St. Elizabeth’s?”

He said he had been thinking about this for three years, since he became bishop of Oakland in May 2013.

He recalled his first visit to the high school soon after he became bishop, and acknowledged the sacrifices families had made, and are continuing to make, to send their children to the high school.

In 1961, the school enrolled 700; enrollment has been declining steadily since 1990. Current enrollment is 143.

“Each and every one of you 143 students is important to me,” the bishop said. “We cannot provide all the subjects, all the programs, all the sports, all the clubs and all the extracurricular activities needed for a good Catholic high school.”

Instead, the bishop said the Fruitvale District school, built in the 1920s, would be the site of the Cristo Rey school he plans to open in fall 2018.

To accomplish that, Saint Elizabeth High School would graduate its last class in June 2017 and the school in its present form would close.

When it reopens as a Cristo Rey school — in which students attend classes four days a week and spend the fifth day at a job that helps defray the cost of education — it will welcome a freshman class, adding a new class for the three subsequent years.

The evening’s meeting focused on plans the diocese has made to accommodate the students currently in ninth, 10 and 11th grades who would be displaced.

Those plans, included expedited admission to six of what the bishop termed “receiving” high schools, including Bishop O’Dowd and Holy Names in Oakland; St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda; Saint Mary’s College High School in Berkeley; Salesian College Preparatory in Richmond; and Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward.

Families will pay the same tuition they pay at Saint Elizabeth, with cost-of-living adjustments annually That tuition could be significantly lower than what the schools charge; the difference will be made up by the diocese and the schools.

Representatives of each of the high schools, including presidents, principals and pastors, were in the audience.

The transition affects 42 juniors, 19 sophomores and 46 freshmen enrolled at Saint Elizabeth High School.

The bishop and Rev. Larry Young, interim superintendent of schools, faced a variety of questions from students and their families, who listened attentively to the transition plans, but were not shy in expressing their concerns.

Chief among them were concerns over conditions the students might face in applying to other schools. They were told that a previous denial of admission at another school, for example, would not be held against them.

Others wanted to be sure the bishop understood the school’s community spirit, and more than a few tears were shed by students telling stories of parents working two jobs to pay tuition at the school.

Some questioned whether the school community should have been consulted on the change, and wondered aloud if they could have raised the money needed to keep the school open in its present form.

Some of the harshest criticism came from parents of freshman students, who have been on campus less than a month. They questioned why they were allowed to enroll students in the school if the diocese knew it would be closing at the end of their first year.

Some questioned why the school would have to close before reopening. The Cristo Rey network’s experience requires that move. In its 20 years, the Cristo Rey network has grown to 30 schools.

None have closed, the bishop said.

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