On a chilly late autumn afternoon, parents congregated outside of Holy Cross School, a Roman Catholic school on 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. While waiting for their children to emerge from behind the school’s heavy wooden doors, they discussed the school closure notices they had received in the mail earlier that week.
“It’s a good school,” said Adriana Velez, mother of two Holy Cross students, a son in Pre-K and a daughter in eighth grade, and one graduate. “I don’t know why they want to close it.”
While many parents seemed dazed by the news, this was not the first time that Holy Cross parents had received such a notice. Last year, the Archdiocese of New York sent a similar letter notifying them that the archdiocese was considering shuttering their school, but many of the parents discussing the new notice had been under the impression that they had convinced the archdiocese that Holy Cross was worth saving.
Holy Cross is one of 27 Catholic schools considered for closure this year, affecting 5,053 students representing 10 percent of the archdiocese’s total enrollment. The archdiocese – which runs 189 schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, and in several suburban counties north and west of the city – has closed 46 schools since 2006, citing “budget constraints and an ongoing reorganization” as primary reasons for the closures. Abraham Lackman, founder of Praxis Insights, an Education and Government consulting firm, estimated that New York State Catholic school enrollment declined by 35 percent from 2000 to 2010. The same trend has been seen across the country, with inner-city Catholic elementary schools hit particularly hard.
If this year’s closure process follows last year’s, not all of the notified schools will close. Members of the schools’ community have the chance to convince archdiocese officials that their school should be saved before final decisions are made in January. Last year, four of the 32 schools up for closure were saved from the chopping block.
Velez’s relationship with Holy Cross started in 2004 when she transferred her daughter, who is now a freshman at a downtown public school, from her zoned public school in Queens. Velez felt that her daughter wasn’t getting a quality education at her public school. “She wasn’t learning enough there,” she said.
The Velezs are a Catholic school’s target audience; dissatisfied with public schools, looking for a reasonably-priced solution. Holy Cross’s website implores perspective parents to “take charge of your child’s education.” It continues, “Your zoned school is not your only option. Located just steps away from your home or workplace, Holy Cross offers you a peace of mind that your child is nearby learning in a safe and secure environment.”
The Velez’s commute from Queens is nearly 40 minutes each way, but Velez is confident about her choice. “The education here is worth it,” she said. When asked if the tuition is a burden, she acknowledged that at times it has been, but repeated, “the education here is worth it.”
Catholic schools face a unique challenge: staying affordable while being ineligible for government funding. In 2008, the Archdiocese reported that two-thirds of the student body at its New York City schools lived in poverty, and more than 90 percent were minorities.
Compared to the private school competition, Holy Cross’s tuition is pocket change. With all fees included, tuition for one child at the school is $4,315 per year and can be paid in 12 monthly installments of about $360. There is also a discount for families who enroll multiple students; tuition and fees per child for three children comes to approximately $215 per month.
Lackman estimated that 37% of the decline in New York State Catholic school enrollment could be explained by the proliferation of free charter schools in the last decade. In fact, Velez – the avid planner, who unlike the other parents we spoke to that afternoon, already had a firm backup plan– planned to send her two children still at Holy Cross to a new charter school near her home if the school closes.
In light of competition from charter schools, archdiocese officials have been calling for a “level playing field,” advocating a $1,000 state tax credit for families sending children to private schools. This proposal will find friends in Albany in the coming session, where a block of legislators, mostly Republicans but also Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, have expressed support for such measures.
Neither Holy Cross staff nor the archdiocese responded to requests for comment.