Plans by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to combine three Catholic schools next fall to cut costs and boost enrollment are angering some parents of children who attend.
They are particularly upset about an edict by the Catholic school system's superintendent prohibiting other schools in the archdiocese from accepting midyear transfers from the affected schools - St. Anthony of Padua, St. Dominic and Shrine of the Little Flower schools - for fear of a mass exodus.
Parents who don't want their children to attend the new combined school are calling Superintendent Ronald J. Valenti's decree - issued in a letter to principals shortly after the Nov. 17 merger announcement - unfair. They worry that if they wait too long to change where they enroll their children, all the open seats will be taken.
"He wants everyone to give the new school a chance, and so he is strong-arming everyone and not allowing them to transfer in the middle of the school year," said Lilly Santmyer, the mother of a third-grader at St. Dominic School in Hamilton. "It is unheard-of. I don't get it."
Parents say they are concerned that the new school - housed at St. Anthony's in Gardenville and named after Mother Mary Lange, a Haitian who became a nun after opening the first Catholic school for black children in Baltimore in 1828 - will offer a different curriculum and larger class sizes. They say detailed information, including preschool schedules, has been slow to come out.
Valenti says he has done his best to calm anxious parents. He said the curriculum at the new school will be the same as at other schools in the archdiocese, and that while class sizes likely will be larger, it is doubtful they will exceed 30 pupils. Tours of the new school have been arranged so parents can visit on weekends. Most pupils have already viewed the campus. Many say they like it because it is bigger than their old schools and has a gym.
"The curriculum at Mother Mary Lange is going to be a solid, core curriculum as advocated by the archdiocese," Valenti said. "We will remain true to our commitment to a Catholic education. You are not talking about a traumatic change here."
The superintendent said that parents are welcome to visit other Catholic schools and inquire about enrollment for next school year. Midyear transfers will not be allowed, however, even if parents promise to pay tuition at both schools, the old and the new, as some families have offered.
"Given the situation, that you have three schools merging, there could be a mass exodus," Valenti said. "That would make the situation just that much more catastrophic. It would not be fair for other schools to absorb a bulk of new students midyear."
To skirt the edict, some parents say they have cornered principals of desirable Catholic schools at Christmas parties and received informal reassurances that a spot will be reserved for their child for the next school year. Some have also questioned the legality of the directorate.
"If I am paying the tuition why can't I decide where my child goes to school?" asked Allison Myers, whose daughter is in the second grade at St. Dominic. Myers, a longtime member of the St. Dominic parish, has already decided to move her child to a new school in the fall. "I feel like I have lost my freedom of choice, my freedom to choose," she said.
Other parents are following suit.
"I'm not convinced that Mother Mary Lange will work for us," said Janice Gentry, whose daughter Marcia is a seventh-grader at Little Flower. Gentry said she would tour the new school but is also going to visit other campuses. "I just want to make sure that she is going to receive a quality education," Gentry said.
Marcia Gentry, who has told her mother that she and her friends had wanted to spend their last year in middle school together at Little Flower, might have already made up her mind. "She said, 'Mom, I don't think I want to deal with any more Catholic schools,'" Janice Gentry said. "She just doesn't want to go through it anymore."
Since the early 1990s, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has closed a number of schools because of broad demographic and economic changes, including a shift of Catholics from city to suburban addresses. Besides St. Dominic and Little Flower, Bishop John Neumann in Highlandtown, Our Lady of the Rosary High School in the Fells Point-Canton area, and Holy Spirit in Waverly also will close at the end of the academic year.
"When you look at the overarching history and the continual decline in enrollment, you are just putting off the inevitable," said Valenti, referring to the three schools set to be combined. "St. Dominic could not even afford to get their teachers health insurance. Two years ago, the school had to get a loan from the parish to meet payroll for the summer."
While Valenti has been impressed by parents who have offered to raise money to save the schools, he said the problems could not have been solved by selling candy or Christmas wrap. "Once parents understand the logic behind our decision, they are going to see that this was the proper decision," Valenti said.
Some parents are still upset about the way the archdiocese arrived at its verdict: behind closed doors and with no input from them. The merger was announced in a letter to parents and discussed at some length at a Nov. 17 town hall meeting at Archbishop Curley High School. The merger will affect about 500 students.
Pauline Mandel, a St. Dominic school board member whose children attended the school and whose granddaughter now attends, said that some of her friends are feeling alienated from the church as a result of the decision. "It shows the gap between the ivory tower of downtown offices and the real ministry," she said. "Some people are having a real crisis of faith over this."
The principal of the new school, Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, a member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of African-American nuns founded in Baltimore in 1829, said she hopes parents will give Mother Mary Lange a chance. The school will offer a prekindergarten through eighth grade education and include classes in art, music and foreign languages.
"I would like to provide a quality Catholic education to the students who choose to come to the new school," she said. "I will do the best I can to provide a nurturing educational environment."
Sister Rita said she has heard that some parents, many of them alumni who attended the schools when the majority of the pupils were white, are upset that the archdiocese named the new school for a black nun and hired a black woman to run it.
"There will be challenges, but I can only hope and pray that over time people will believe that we offer a quality education," Sister Rita said. "The demographics of the school are changing, but so are the demographics of the world. We have to live together."