The Archdiocese of Baltimore is closing three Catholic schools and merging two others amid declining enrollment and the need to upgrade aging facilities.
Seton Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore, St. Thomas Aquinas School in Hampden, and John Paul Regional School in Woodlawn will close in June, the archdiocese told parents and teachers Wednesday afternoon. As a result, more than 350 students must enroll in another private or public school.
In addition, for the next school year, St. Clement Mary Hofbauer in Rosedale will merge with St. Michael the Archangel School in Overlea about four miles away.
William E. Lori, archbishop of Baltimore, said enrollment appears to have stabilized after decades of sharp declines — the system of nearly 50 private schools that serve 17,000 students lost only 40 students this year.
But, he said, many of the schools need significant and costly upgrades. The archdiocese has identified about $86 million in improvements and renovations that are needed to ensure its facilities are competitive with other private schools in the region.
"This seemed like an opportunity to ask a strategic question," Lori said. "The question for us is where we should invest. ... This is not a decision to save money. This is a decision to invest money."
The archdiocese shuttered 13 schools in 2010, including the beloved Cardinal Gibbons High School in the Morrell Park neighborhood of West Baltimore. That announcement was made in March, long after many public and private schools had already filled their classes for the following school year.
For this round, archdiocesan leaders have taken steps to ease the transition for parents and students. They timed the announcement to give families and teachers time to prepare for the closures and decide whether to stay in the Catholic school system.
School principals announced the school closures to the faculty and sent an email to parents at the end of the school day on Wednesday. Teachers informed students who remained for after-school events.
"We are working hard to think about how we help the impacted families," Lori said.
The reaction from alumni and parents was swift.
Sonja Denise Tassin was overwhelmed with sadness as she drove out of the gate of St. Thomas Aquinas on Wednesday. She said she is raising two biracial children as part of a same-sex couple, and that the school provided a safe, accepting environment.
"Our two daughters are adopted. They came to us with problems and issues," Tassin said. She said Sister Jean Marie, one of her daughter's pre-kindergarten teachers, "answered our prayer."
"She gave her exactly what she needed after coming out of a difficult life," Tassin said. "She gave her so much love."
Parent John Bullock, who described himself as a lifelong Catholic, was not surprised at the announcement. He had heard about declining enrollment and noticed the first-grade class was small. He had begun looking for a new school for his son, who is in second grade.
"Clearly, there were some issues going on there. It has been a slow train coming with these closures," he said.
With all the Catholic schools near his home in Southwest Baltimore closed, he said he would have no choice but to send his son to a public school. He saw no way the archdiocese could have stemmed the loss of students, a trend that he noted went far beyond Baltimore.
But Julie Jester, a 2011 Seton Keough graduate, blamed the declining enrollment on the archdiocese after it changed the school's leaders.
"Had it been independently owned and operated, Seton Keough would've thrived as one of the most diverse Catholic high schools in the state," she wrote in an email. "But the archdiocese intervened and created a death spiral for a unique school that so many cherished."
Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said parents of students at schools slated for closure will receive a phone call from an archdiocesan official between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Thursday to discuss the closures.
"We hope the personal outreach conveys to them how much we care about their families and the education of their children," he said.
The archdiocese had commissioned an 18-month study to determine the need for consolidation and infrastructure improvements. Ayers Saint Gross, a design firm; DataStory, a data analysis company; and Fielding Nair International, an architecture firm specializing in schools, worked on the study.
With Baltimore city and county public schools investing about $1 billion to renovate and build new schools over a decade, Catholic school leaders felt the need to invest in its buildings in order to remain competitive.
"If we're going to be relevant going forward … we needed to do the same thing," said James Sellinger, the archdiocese's chancellor of Catholic schools.
The study recommended abandoning St. Clement Mary Hofbauer elementary and middle school.
"We were told by the experts not to try to fix it," Caine said. The school would have been too costly to repair, requiring $10 million in facility and educational improvements.
As a result, St. Clement, which has 247 students, will merge with St. Michael the Archangel School. A St. Clement program for students with learning disabilities will also move to Overlea. The two schools will be divided into an upper and lower school, and both principals will remain leaders in the merged school.
Seton Keough's enrollment declined by 66 percent in the past decade to 186 girls this school year. The building was designed for 1,000 students. The school needs about $16 million in improvements, such as computer and science labs. The Holy Angels Catholic School, which shares space on the Seton Keough campus, will be relocated when the campus is sold.
John Paul Regional School, an elementary school with 150 students, had been operating at a loss and losing enrollment. At capacity, it could hold 265 students. And St. Thomas Aquinas, also an elementary school, has 90 students in a school that once had a student population of double that size.
Archdiocese leaders contend that demand for their schools is high but that affordability for families in the region is a barrier to admission.
Statewide, Catholic schools have had difficulty funding their parish schools as enrollments declined and schools had to hire non-clergy teachers to fill the faculty ranks. The Baltimore Archdiocese provides about $13.5 million annually to support its schools.
Raising tuition has not been an option in most of the archdiocese's schools. Many of the students are not Catholic and come from low-income families. The average tuition is $6,000 for elementary schools and $13,000 for high schools.
This year, state lawmakers approved $5 million worth of state-funded scholarships for students to attend private schools. Most of the funds went to students attending Catholic schools.
Caine said the state revenue brought new students to the system and supported some of those who were already enrolled.
Under Armour CEO Kevin also gave $1 million to the archdiocese to support student scholarships.
Nancy Grasmick, a former Maryland state school superintendent and a member of the board of the Baltimore Archdiocese schools, said she believes the archdiocese has made significant progress in raising standards for students and teachers.
A Blue Ribbon panel set up in 2010 looked at the quality of education and made a series of recommendations. At the time, Grasmick said, teachers and principals did not have to meet any criteria or expertise for their jobs.
Today, Grasmick said, the schools have "standards and expectations that are very well-defined."
In addition, students are regularly tested to determine if they are making progress.
The 102 teachers at the three schools slated for closure will be able to apply for jobs at other schools in the archdiocese, although administrators anticipate that some teachers may retire. The archdiocese will provide guidance to students and parents, and has guaranteed that tuition will remain the same next year if they transfer to a Catholic school that costs more.
Other independent Catholic high schools unaffiliated with the archdiocese will not be affected by the closures. They include Loyola Blakefield, the Institute of Notre Dame, Mercy, Cristo Rey and Notre Dame Prep.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.