As Seton Keough High School prepares to close, memories and reflections abound

Miejo Dambita was aware of the rumors that her school was going to close, but when she first heard that The Seton Keough High School would be shutting its doors at the end of this school year, she thought it was a joke.

Miejo, a 17-year-old senior from Glen Burnie, was at a dance rehearsal — she plans to attend University of Maryland, College Park, on a full dance scholarship in the fall —when the word spread Oct. 26.

The next day, details were presented at a school assembly..

"The tone of everything was kind of somber," she said. "I think everyone was still in shock about everything."

As the school year went on, students and staff said they spent the year trying to make the most of a difficult situation.

"It's been hard for all of us," Miejo said. "Everyone has worked amazingly hard and we're not letting everything fall through. We're really finishing to the last second and going really strong."

A decline in enrollment, lack of interest and rising costs led to the decision to close the school, a nearly 30-year icon in the Catholic community, said Sean Caine, a spokesman for The Archdiocese of Baltimore, one of the nation's largest with 500,000 members.

The archdiocese's Catholic School Board approved the school's closure Oct. 5 after an 18-month study examining school facilities, enrollment, projected demographic data and potential areas of growth.

Jennifer Shields, a 1998 Seton Keough graduate, who has been teaching science at the school since 2004, said the announcement was "shocking and pretty devastating." While the day after it was made was difficult, students and staff quickly had to get back to business.

"We didn't want to harp on that fact," she said. "We didn't want everything to be a sad event from here on out. If anything, it's kind of been like going out with a bang, almost. Everyone's putting in that final effort to make it the best it can be."

The school was founded in September 1988, when Archbishop Keough and Seton High schools merged. Seton Keough is named in honor of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and Francis Patrick Keough, who was archbishop in Baltimore from 1947 to 1961.

Over the last 10 years, enrollment declined 66 percent in the school, which was built to house about 1,000 students, Caine said.

"If this was a one year anomaly, or even a two or three year anomaly, we'd be looking at other avenues," he said. "This has been a long time trend and a lot of resources were put in to try to reverse the trend."

Those efforts have included marketing, facility work and offering different programs at the school, he said.

"There hasn't been the interest level in the school that is necessary to keep it operating," he said.

The school has 180 students and 50 staff members, according to Donna Bridickas, the school's president since 2014. The 133 students not graduating this year have been placed in other schools, she said. About 90 percent are going to other area Catholic schools.

Student placements were completed last month and work continues to find jobs for teachers and other staff, said Bridickas, who is unsure of her future job.

Seton Keough, just inside the Baltimore city line, is one of three schools being closed by the archdiocese. Others are John Paul Regional School in Woodlawn and St. Thomas Aquinas School in Hampden. Both serve pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

Nationally, the number of Catholic schools has declined 14 percent over the past 10 years and enrollment is down 17.6 percent, according to a report from the National Catholic Educational Association.

This year, the archdiocese had to provide $1.9 million to the school to pay bills, including teacher salaries and benefits. Over the last decade, the school received more than $6.5 million in subsidies from the archdiocese because otherwise, the operating budget would have been in the red, Caine said.

The building needs more than $16 million in improvements or upgrades, Caine said.

He said the school's tuition rate — $13,500 per year — is among the lowest for all-girl Catholic high schools in the diocese, but was too much for the families Seton Keough serves. Caine said there had been modest increases in tuition to reflect the rising costs of employee salaries and benefits.

The Holy Angels Catholic School, an elementary school with about 200 students that has shared the Baltimore building with Seton Keough since the fall of 2010, is in the process of being relocated, Caine said. There is no set date as far as when the school will move. Once that is finalized, the entire property will be sold, he said.

The diocese's Operation Teach, a program for young Catholic school teachers who live on the Seton Keough campus, will remain in place for the 2017-18 school year and then relocate to a site yet to be determined, Caine said.

As the school year comes to a close — the final day for students is June 9 and for staff is June 30 — the school community is celebrating several "lasts."

The junior class was the last one to receive class rings. The school offered freshmen and sophomores an opportunity to purchase a ring to be given to them at the end of the year as a way to carry on the school's memory, Bridickas said. About 20 were sold.

At the school's 10th and final "Walk for Hope," students raised more than $8,000 for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, $3,000 more than the goal. At the school's last spring concert, alumnae were invited to join the school band and chorus to perform.

The school's final mass will be in June, Bridickas said. Students will be given a Seton Keough pin as a memento.

The school's commencement is May 26. Bridickas will deliver remarks during the ceremony at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. She knows it will be a bittersweet event.

"We're happy for them that they're at that time in their life," she said. "The sad part is they have no place to come back to."

Erica Bull, a 17-year-old senior from Pasadena, said she's sad to miss out on being able to return to her alma mater to visit teachers and friends she met.

She hopes to stay connected and have reunions with her classmates.

"It's sweet that I get to graduate and I'm the last graduating class and I'm closing out the legacy of Seton Keough," she said. "But it has a bitter taste on my mouth because it's a school that I won't get to go back to."

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