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Carholic schools consolidate, Rogers Park parents revolt

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By all accounts, Saint Ignatius is one of the finest Catholic grade schools on the north side--its enrollment economically and ethnically diverse, its principal dynamic, its teachers dedicated, and its parents committed.

And yet the Chicago archdiocese recently proposed to close the school, at 1300 W. Loyola, and scatter its students to other Catholic schools in and around Rogers Park. The reason, church officials say, is financial. "It's hard to lose a parish school," says Jean Noble, an educational consultant for the archdiocese. "But with enrollment decreasing and tuition increasing we must make changes to keep quality, affordable Catholic education in the area."

Such comments, parents counter, reveal just how far out of touch church leaders have become. Enrollment at Saint Ignatius is rising, not falling, they say, and tuition remains relatively low. Furthermore, closing the school would be a debilitating blow to the parish and community, particularly since parishioners have worked so hard to revitalize it.

"The archdiocese is acting like a business with their eye to the bottom line, not like a church," says Kathie Scanlan, a parent at Saint Ignatius. "We're a model for Catholic schools. They shouldn't close us; they should learn from us."

Such disputes are becoming common as the church struggles with how to allocate its resources as middle-class Catholics continue to leave the city. The archdiocese, which faces a $15 million deficit, has closed 53 inner-city churches since 1990. As reporter Andrew Herrmann recently wrote in the Sun-Times, the archdiocese is targeting its limited resources toward a handful of far-off suburbs and upscale neighborhoods like Dearborn Park while cutting back on "overserved" communities in Chicago. "'We must dream,' [Joseph Cardinal Bernardin] told Catholics earlier this year," Herrmann wrote. "But those dreams must be 'practical.'"

One such "overserved" neighborhood is Rogers Park, which in the 1920s was a heavily Catholic working-class community. Over the years the area has seen an influx of Jews, and then of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians; there's still a stable, integrated, middle-class base in Rogers Park, but its schools are economically segregated. By and large, the lower-income children attend public schools, while most middle-class parents send their kids to private schools or ship them out to magnet schools in other communities. All of which means the local Catholic schools have struggled to maintain enrollment. "The demographics changed," says Rich McMenamin, a parent at Saint Ignatius. "The original parishioners moved to the suburbs, and the church didn't keep up."

It was in response to these trends that the archdiocese organized SUCCESS--Schools United to Continue Catholic Educational Strength and Stability--in November 1990. It was a convocation of representatives from the eight Catholic schools in the area: Saint Gertrude, Saint Gregory, Saint Henry, Saint Ignatius, Saint Ita, Saint Jerome, Saint Timothy, and Saint Margaret Mary.

The group's purpose was to devise a money-saving consolidation plan, no easy task. Rivalries have long existed between parishes, going back to the days when they represented warring ethnic factions in the same neighborhood. "We had to get past the ancient rivalries and jealousies," says Toni Potenza, a Saint Ignatius parent and one of the school's representatives on SUCCESS. "We can't afford that parochial view anymore. We have to think regionally, in terms of a broader Rogers Park community."

The archdiocese assured the parishes that participation in SUCCESS was voluntary, and that they would be open to any resource-sharing suggestions. But it soon became clear that the archdiocese was not open to suggestions--that it felt it had no choice but to close schools so it could save on teachers' salaries and raise money by renting the vacated buildings. In December of 1992, Saint Margaret Mary dropped out of SUCCESS after parishioners there opposed any plan that would send their children to other schools in the area.

A few months later, SUCCESS unveiled the first draft of a proposal to consolidate the area's schools. Saint Gregory and Saint Henry would become middle schools (that is, for sixth- through eighth-graders); Saint Jerome, Saint Ita, and Saint Gertrude would offer kindergarten through fifth grade only; and Saint Timothy and Saint Ignatius would close.

"One reason to create middle schools is to bring the older kids together so we can offer them more," says Potenza. "When there are only 15 kids in a seventh-grade class, it's hard to offer them drama or art or Latin. But you can if you have two or three seventh-grade classes."

Other parents saw it differently. "Under the plan, all teachers would have to reapply for their jobs," says Scanlan. "How would we know if our favorite teachers would be rehired? Or if our favorite programs would be retained? The beauty of the parish school is local control: it allows parents, teachers, and principal to work together. Now we have a bunch of bureaucrats telling us how to run our schools."

Parishioners at Saint Ignatius felt particularly betrayed. Since 1991 enrollment there has gone up by almost 50 percent (to 275), tuition has remained at $1,780, and school leaders have aggressively wooed local residents, non-Catholics included. The student population is 49 percent white, 34 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, and, most revealing, 38 percent non-Catholic. "We did away with the two-tier tuition system that had non-Catholics paying more than Catholics--that only fostered an us-versus-them attitude," says McMenamin. "This is still a Catholic school, but there's a greater emphasis on teaching Christian values--like sharing or caring. We're proud of our diversity."

In an attempt to iron out their differences, several meetings were held between church and parish leaders, but little was settled. "They didn't listen to us--they were arrogant," says Scanlan. "I said to [a bishop], 'Why do you think this is a better way to educate?' He said, 'Do you have a PhD in education?' I said, 'No, I have a PhD in parenting--I've got four kids.' I've been a good Catholic all my life, but that kind of condescension is hard to take."

During the summer, parish leaders pored over the books to see if they had enough money to operate the school independently. They discovered that the parish owed the archdiocese about $700,000, but that most of those loans had gone toward the church, not the school. "We needed an additional $65,000 to operate on our own," says McMenamin. "It was doable, if we ran some aggressive fund-raisers and tapped our alumni."

On October 24 the parish pastor, Reverend Richard Baumann, announced that Saint Ignatius was dropping out of SUCCESS. Three days later, Bernardin sent a letter to the parish clarifying his new position.

"When SUCCESS was initiated several years ago, participation was voluntary; you were told you could opt out," Bernardin's letter began. "Since then . . . we have learned that the Archdiocese is facing a severe financial crisis, caused in large part because of a mounting and continued annual deficit on the part of many of our parishes, including Saint Ignatius. . . . What was voluntary before can no longer be voluntary." In other words, because the parish owed the archdiocese $700,000, the parents would have no choice but to obey the SUCCESS plan if they wanted their children to have a Catholic education in the Rogers Park area.

Bernardin commended school leaders for increasing enrollment, but added that "quite candidly, this was accomplished by lowering your out of parish tuition below that of the neighboring schools. . . . I also know that you are making great efforts to raise money for the school as to make it self-supporting. But it is not possible to separate the school from the church, as though there were a dichotomy between the two."

The cardinal's letter only made many parishioners more indignant. "I didn't send my child here because the tuition is lower; I came here because of the great principal and programs," says Dorothea Young. "Tuition isn't really that much higher for non-Catholics at other schools, when you figure the offerings Catholics give [to the parish] at services."

Other parents felt Bernardin was using soft language to disguise hard tactics. "This parish used to generate a surplus of cash that I'm sure helped the archdiocese develop suburban parishes," says McMenamin. "Now we go through tough times and they pull out the rug. It's not fair."

Should the school close, McMenamin and others say the parish itself would eventually close. "I go to church every Sunday, it's an important part of my life," says McMenamin. "But to me the church and school are intertwined. I don't know if I would want to remain here if they close the school. I don't think church leaders understand how important this is."

In recent weeks local civic and political leaders have joined the cause and asked to meet with Bernardin. "I don't want to lose any schools or families from my neighborhood," says 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore. "If we lose Saint Ignatius, that's another reason for a family to leave the city." And to appease parents, church leaders modified the SUCCESS plan by making Saint Gregory a K-8 school. "This is for parents who want their children to attend one school from kindergarten to eighth grade," says Noble. "This shows we're listening."

But that change won't keep Saint Ignatius open, and bad feelings remain. "The archdiocese treats us like sheep," says Scanlan. "They just want me to write my tuition checks, send my kids, and shut up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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