St. Thérèse to open in fall for special-needs students

By Beth Donze, Catholic Schools Week, Clarion Herald

Our Lady of Divine Providence Elementary in Metairie and Holy Rosary Elementary and High School in New Orleans will close permanently in May, paving the way for a new school designed exclusively for elementary and secondary students with mild to moderate learning challenges, the Office of Catholic Schools announced Jan. 16.

Catholic Schools Superintendent Dr. RaeNell Houston said the new school, to be named St. Thérèse Academy, will open this fall at Our Lady of Divine Providence’s campus at 1000 North Starrett Road.

Although the earliest available grade of entry to the new school has not yet been finalized, St. Thérèse will provide a seamless and personalized education to students diagnosed with mild-to-moderate special needs from the elementary ages through the 12th grade.

“This model will follow a highly individualized curriculum with a low student-teacher ratio to allow for learning to be tailored to the students’ unique abilities and learning styles,” said Houston, noting that St. Thérèse’s curriculum will include physical education and art and music therapy. Its administration will be led by an experienced educator with certification in special education, while its team of educators will be composed of qualified faculty supported by a specialist in curriculum and instruction, she said.

“Our commitment to the community that we serve at Holy Rosary is strong. We are not going to abandon that community,” Houston said, referring to families whose children had found a welcoming school home at Holy Rosary, which exclusively serves students with mild to moderate learning challenges, such as autism and dyslexia.

“We love our children, and we want to continue to embrace and serve them, but we (also) want to do that in the best possible way, and be responsible stewards with the resources that we have,” the superintendent said.

Fewer and fewer pupils

The decision to close the two schools and create a new one comes after a year-long study by the archdiocese on how to address declining enrollments at both Our Lady of Divine Providence and Holy Rosary of fewer than 200 students in recent years, while offering area families an innovative and sustainable educational model offering non-traditional learners a quality education leading to a high school diploma.

A sustainability study completed by Meitler – a national Catholic planning organization – projected that Holy Rosary’s enrollment would drop to fewer than 90 students by 2023. The school, which serves grades K-12, posted a total enrollment of 124 students in 2017-18 and saw that figure dip to 110 in the current school year.

For the last several years, the archdiocese has subsidized Holy Rosary at a cost of $500,000 to $600,000 annually – far exceeding its original pledge to provide $200,000 in annual assistance to offset rental fees paid to Blessed Trinity Parish, which owns the campus fronting the 2400 block of Napoleon Avenue.

The Meitler study pointed to a budgetary deficit at Holy Rosary of more than $500,000 for the 2018-19 school year and projected that this shortfall would spiral to nearly $1 million over the next five years.

Shifting locations, missions

Meitler concluded that Holy Rosary’s failure to attract students and support from outside donors partly was due to the school’s multiple campus relocations and mission changes over the years, inadequate marketing and unappealing and aging campus facilities.

Founded in 1908 at its eponymous home parish of Our Lady of the Rosary on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans, Holy Rosary thrived as a traditional, co-ed parish elementary school until dwindling numbers of school-age children living in its Bayou St. John/Esplanade Ridge/Mid-City drawing area forced its closure in 1991.

In a change in mission spearheaded by Father James Tarantino, then-pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, the Esplanade campus reopened in 1996 as a middle school for boys with learning difficulties. A few years later it opened admission to girls and expanded to grades 1-8.

Holy Rosary opened a high school in 2005 – on a separate campus at St. Lawrence the Martyr Parish in Metairie – but Hurricane Katrina sent all grades (K-12) to the Esplanade campus and opened up enrollment to both traditional and non-traditional learners.

In 2012, Holy Rosary moved the K-12 school to its present location on Napoleon Avenue – the former campus of Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary. In 2017, the school redefined its focus yet again, reverting to accepting only students who had been diagnosed with mild to moderate learning challenges.

Special learners embraced

Declining enrollment at Our Lady of Divine Providence, which opened in 1967 and currently enrolls 170 students ages six weeks through grade 7, also put its long-term survival in question, Houston said. The school had seen its student numbers impacted by post-Katrina competition from charter and magnet schools in Jefferson Parish, a decline in families seeking a Catholic education and rising tuition.

For more than a decade, Our Lady of Divine Providence (OLDP) has welcomed children in need of specialized support  – including those with autism, dyslexia and other sensory processing disorders – into its traditional academic programs. Elvina “Dee” DiBartolo, OLDP’s principal, said about 70 of her students – roughly 40 percent of Our Lady of Divine Providence’s current student body – have been assessed with mild to moderate learning challenges.

Our Lady of Divine Providence’s campus, whose amenities include about 20 classrooms, a media center for library and computer instruction and a large play yard, will not have to be altered for its new role as St. Thérèse, Houston said.

“(St. Thérèse) will bring something to Our Lady of Divine Providence that is already part of that community, a need that they already support,” Houston said. “And it will give what used to be Holy Rosary School a new home – we will have this new creation in St. Thérèse.”

All styles of learning

Houston said St. Thérèse would become an important piece of “the puzzle” of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which strives to respond to the needs of all families, whether they are seeking a school for traditional learners, one with a blend of traditional classrooms and “pull-out” resources for special learners, or a school  like St. Michael Special or the soon-to-open St. Thérèse, which are dedicated exclusively to those with learning differences.

Houston said children currently enrolled at Holy Rosary, including those participating in the Louisiana Scholarship for Excellence Program (vouchers), and students at Our Lady of Divine Providence who are currently receiving individualized instructional programs, will be transferred to St. Thérèse. If families decide to choose another Catholic school, the Office of Catholic Schools will work with families to facilitate transfers. All other students from Our Lady of Divine Providence will be given priority admission to other area Catholic schools.

Families with questions or concerns are invited to call the Office of Catholic Schools at 866-7916 or email superintendent@arch-no.org.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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