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September 19, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
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THE CATHOLIC VOICE

St. Elizabeth High School on path to reinvent itself

St. Elizabeth High School, a fixture in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood for 95 years, will close its doors at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

When those doors reopen in fall 2018, the site will be the new home of a Cristo Rey high school, which Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, said is the result of his three-year quest to keep a high school open in the neighborhood.

 
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"My goal, my one desire," he said, "is how can I save St. Elizabeth's?"

Bishop Barber faced a standing-room audience of students, parents, teachers and alumni who filled the gym on Sept. 7 to tell them of his decision. The diocese is planning to establish a high school at the site that will follow the Cristo Rey model that has proved successful in urban settings across the country.

The first Cristo Rey school opened in Chicago 20 years ago; today the network has 32 Catholic, college preparatory high schools across the country. The program of rigorous academics, combined with work experience — students are in the classroom four days a week and working one day a week in a job that helps fund the cost of tuition — prepares the students for success in college. The program is serving 10,000 students nationwide; 97 percent are people of color, and the average household income is $35,000.

Preserving a high school in the neighborhood comes with an additional cost: While the senior class will be the last graduates of the current St. Elizabeth High School, the juniors, sophomores and freshmen will need to transfer to other schools.

While parents contribute about half a million dollars in tuition, the diocese has been matching that to keep the school open in light of dwindling enrollment and scarce financial support. A sustainable model needed to be found, the bishop said.

St. Elizabeth is not alone among urban Catholic schools nationwide.

The bishop 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."

To accomplish that, St. Elizabeth High School will graduate its last class in June 2017 and the school will be transformed to a Cristo Rey school.

When it reopens, it will welcome a freshman class of 125, adding a new class for the three subsequent years.

The Sept. 7 meeting focused on plans the diocese has made to accommodate the students currently in ninth, 10th 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. De La Salle and Carondelet high schools in Concord have also offered to help.

Families will pay the same tuition they pay at St. 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.

Also in attendance were four members of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, who were present to show concern for the families and children, many of whom had been students at nearby St. Elizabeth Elementary School.

By the end of the week, the sisters released a statement:

"We also hold the St. Elizabeth High School community in our hearts — as the Diocese of Oakland prepares to close the campus at the end of the academic year. For 95 years St. Elizabeth has been a blessing in Oakland's Fruitvale district, providing a Catholic education to over 10,000 young men and women. Among these alums, 50 women entered our congregation, serving as Dominican sisters.

"Our sorrow at this closure is also accompanied by great hope. After one 'break year,' the school will reopen as a Cristo Rey campus. We are grateful to the Christian Brothers who bring their charism and commitment to this new Cristo Rey school that will continue to serve East Bay families with limited financial resources."

The transition affects 42 juniors, 19 sophomores and 46 freshmen enrolled at St. 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.

No Cristo Rey school has closed, the bishop noted.

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