St. Peter Claver School to close in May

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Declining enrollment, state test scores and lack of financial viability were deciding factors in the Office of Catholic Schools (OCS) Archdiocese of New Orleans’ decision to close St. Peter Claver Catholic School after this academic year.

The closure of the elementary school, founded by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1921 in Treme, was announced to parents Jan. 10 by St. Peter Claver pastor, Father John Asare-Dankwah, at an evening meeting on campus. In attendance were Dr. RaeNell Houston, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and associate school superintendent Ingrid Fields. (Associate superintendent Michael Buras had spoken to teachers earlier in the day and will work closely with them to find new positions for next school year.)

A road map for the future

Father Asare, Dr. Houston and St. Peter Claver principal Deacon Lawrence Houston explained the reasoning for the closure and outlined steps all parents could take to  ensure that their child’s Catholic education could continue in the 2019-20 academic year at another archdiocesan Catholic school – whether the child’s tuition is state-funded, paid through a scholarship program or paid by the family. 

Parents had concerns, Fields said, about “continuing to have a faith-based, supportive atmosphere for their children to continue to thrive in” like they found at St. Peter Claver, a neighborhood anchor where generations of families have attended.

She and Dr. Houston said transferring students will be given priority at Orleans Parish Catholic schools with openings. Slots are currently available in New Orleans at St. Leo the Great, Resurrection of Our Lord, St. Joan of Arc, St. Rita, Good Shepherd, St. Benedict the Moor and St. Alphonsus for students on state scholarship, the ACE scholarship program, Arete Scholars Louisiana scholarship program or for those paying tuition themselves. St. Stephen and St. Mary’s Academy can only take students on ACE or Arete scholarship or tuition-paying students.

Parents would be assisted by Fields in meetings over several days at St. Peter Claver to help facilitate the application process to transition to another school for the 2019-20 school. Remaining dates for that assistance are Jan. 22-24 from 3-6 p.m.  A confirmation notice of a new school placement will be given to parents by mid-February, Dr. Houston said.

Sad, but necessary

Some parents questioned the decision to close the school.

Deacon Houston, principal and a deacon at St. Peter Claver Catholic Parish, cited as contributing factors the decrease in the number of  families who returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the rise of charter schools in Orleans and Jefferson civil parishes and the ability of magnet schools to offer different programs.

Being well aware of the school’s financial and academic status when he took the school’s helm in the 2017-18 school year, Deacon Houston lamented losing its history in the community. The school has provided education for African Americans in New Orleans and had a legacy of educating generations of students, many who were parishioners of St. Peter Claver Church.

“It became a legacy type of school of those who came through,” Deacon Houston said. “We taught grandchildren and probably serve great grandchildren today, so the decision to close was not taken lightly.” 

Parents knew that “their children would be taken care of and looked after; they knew that faith-based values are there in the school and, that’s a lot of what Catholic education is about – not only education but the values of the Catholic Church in these kids,” Deacon Houston said.

“We’ve been blessed for many years to be able to catechize our children, and they have chosen to be part of our church community as well as their parents. That has been a blessing.” Now, families are feeling a loss, and more stress will be placed on the parish’s Office of Religious Education to ensure kids are prepared for sacraments, he said.

Working on sustainability

It’s not that the school didn’t try to sustain itself.

Deacon Houston said the school was researching grants and alternative sources of funding to increase enrollment; and an alumni association was established and held fundraisers to make up an estimated $300,000 deficit by the end of this school year.

“It’s been extremely difficult,” Dr. Houston said of the decision, considering the school’s rich family tradition in the neighborhood, its history, place in the African-American community and the fact that it was the last Catholic school open in the Cathedral Deanery (the region of the archdiocese that includes St. Louis Cathedral). “It‘s been a painstaking process.”

But with only 147 students this year and mounting debt, closure was inevitable.

“For a couple of years, we’ve been watching the school,” Dr. Houston said, since it wasn’t meeting the criteria established in 2011 to keep a school open. In 2014, the school was state-sanctioned due to subpar school testing. While the OCS worked with St. Peter Claver on professional development and it overcame  the state sanctions, debt continued because the parish could no longer subsidize it.

A light might soon peak through the sadness of the closure, Dr. Houston said. The closing of St. Peter Claver, in its current form, may lead to another school opening. Dr. Houston said she is beginning discussions with Father Asare to investigate possibly opening an arts school on the site that would blend well with African-American arts culture of the area.

“Our goal is to have and continue education and formation of children in that facility,” Dr. Houston said. “But what that looks like in the community, we don’t know yet.” 

Any other Catholic school closures this year will be made in the coming weeks, she said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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