When Corey Dawson arrived for class yesterday at Our Lady of the Rosary High School, a fellow student asked him where he was thinking of spending his senior year.
"At first, I thought it was a joke," said Dawson, a 17-year-old junior from Gardenville who planned to graduate from the Southeast Baltimore community institution.
Instead, Dawson learned what many of his fellow students already knew: The Archdiocese of Baltimore will close the school at the end of the academic year because of falling enrollment and a rising budget deficit.
The news hit Rosary's 126 students hard and left them mourning the loss of a school they described as a haven in a city where learning can be a daily struggle.
"It's like tearing a family apart," said Matt Fogle, a 15-year-old sophomore from South Baltimore, digging his hands into his pockets after class yesterday to ward off the cold outside Rosary's granite facade.
In a letter to parents dated Wednesday, Ronald J. Valenti, the archdiocese's superintendent of schools, announced that Rosary would close after running up a deficit of $322,241 over the past five years despite nearly $700,000 in grants from the archdiocese.
The school's enrollment also has been tumbling since 1999 to today's total of 126. As of December, only 13 new students had indicated a desire to attend next fall, Valenti said.
Valenti attributed Rosary's closing to broad phenomena: Baltimore's declining population, the economic downturn and the fiscal precariousness of a small school that relies heavily on tuition.
"It should be understood that the faculty and administration have done everything possible to provide your son/daughter with a good education," Valenti wrote to parents. "What has happened is a result of the economy, demographics and the escalating cost to operate such a program."
Mary Jo Warthen, who has served as principal of Rosary for three years, said the school was caught in a vicious cycle. To provide a good education, she raised teachers' salaries, which ran as low as $18,000 when she arrived. She also hired a guidance counselor. But the cost of doing so - tuition rose $700 over three years - priced too many prospective students out of the market, she said.
"I know there are a number of Hispanic kids in the area who would love to come here, but they can't afford tuition," Warthen said yesterday in her office after most of the students had gone home.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore, the nation's oldest, comprises Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard and Washington counties. Since the early 1990s, it has closed at least five schools, Valenti said.
The archdiocese set up a task force last summer to look at the future of its system, which includes 94 schools. The challenges include declining city enrollment, waiting lists at suburban schools and aging buildings - some more than 150 years old. Valenti said no decisions had been made on whether to close or merge more schools this year.
"We're still in deliberations," Valenti said. "It's natural that we are looking at the whole picture."
Rosary students will have the option of attending three Catholic high schools next fall. They are Archbishop Curley, which is all-male; the Catholic High School of Baltimore, which is all female; and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is co-educational. An informational meeting for parents with administrators from the three schools is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Rosary.
As the news sank in yesterday, students and parents tried to figure out what to do next.
La-Tricia Taylor, whose 14-year-old daughter, Sha-Tia White, is a sophomore at Rosary, wondered how she would afford the additional $2,000 tuition at Catholic High. Annual tuition at Rosary is $5,775 - among the lowest at the city's Catholic high schools. Tuition at Catholic High is about $8,000, Taylor said.
"I'm going to have to work nights and not be with my daughter to pay for her schooling," said Taylor, who lives in Woodlawn and works as a corrections officer at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup.
Taylor, 32, is expecting another child in September. She said she would probably take a second job as a private security officer after the baby is born to fund Sha-Tia's education.
Rosary, located just west of Patterson Park, was created five years ago when the archdiocese transferred the student body of Our Lady of Pompei High School on South Conkling Street to an empty Catholic elementary school to relieve crowding at its original location. Rosary provides education to those in need, particularly students who could not meet admission requirements at the city's more competitive Catholic high schools.
A third of Rosary students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and almost two-thirds receive financial aid. More than half live with relatives, friends or single parents.
Students acknowledge that Rosary's size has its drawbacks. The school has no football team and fields a basketball team with only seven players. The chemistry lab, students say, could use more chemicals.
But if a small student body means fewer resources, it has also meant a more intimate and caring environment, students said.
Between hugs with fellow students, Katie Sparkes, 15, recalled how a teacher helped her heal a rift with a friend, something she thought teachers in a large public high school simply wouldn't have time for.
"I love the school very dearly," said Sparkes, a sophomore who wore jeans, wire-rimmed glasses and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. "It's a very small school. That's what I like about it. You don't get lost in the hallways."