Low enrollment forces St. Rita School to close


.. A Catholic elementary school in Dundalk is closing, despite assurances from Archdiocese of Baltimore officials this year that the school would remain open.

St. Rita School will not open for classes in the fall because enrollment had declined more quickly than expected, according to the archdiocese, which told parents of its decision in a letter this week.

Parents said yesterday that they were shocked and upset that their children cannot return to the school. In January, Catholic school leaders wrote to parents to say that St. Rita, along with two other Dundalk elementary schools, would remain open next school year.

"Be assured that the three Catholic schools in the area, St. Rita, Sacred Heart of Mary and Our Lady of Hope/Saint Luke, will reopen for the 2006-2007 academic year," wrote Eastern Vicar and Auxiliary Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski in a Jan. 6 letter.

Tammy Iannantuono, whose daughter Haley attended prekindergarten and kindergarten at St. Rita, is among the parents who were unhappy to learn of the school's closing a week after classes ended.

"We were lied to by an organization that was supposed to be teaching us not to lie to people," she said.

Officials never expected enrollment at the school to drop so low, said archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine.

For the 2004-2005 school year, 187 children enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Caine said. Last year, 157 pupils attended classes there, but only 95 registered for fall, although 120 had been projected to enroll.

St. Rita would have marked its 80th anniversary next year. At its peak, more than 800 pupils attended the school, Caine said.

He said the archdiocese sent the January letter hoping to encourage parents who might have been worried that the school would not reopen to register their children.

"This was simply another effort to maybe bring a sense of stability or assurance to help boost enrollment," he said. "At no point in that time frame was there any way that anyone could have seen they would end up with the kind of numbers that they ended up with."

Caine said that if officials had known enrollment would decrease so much, they would have announced the change in January, when they told families at New All Saints Parish School in Northwest Baltimore that that school would be closing.

"It's not ideal, announcing a school closing in June," Caine said. "The letter could have been honored, but it would have been honored at a cost that no one was willing to pay, for either the school or the parish."

To keep the school open, St. Rita's parish would have to take on nearly $200,000 of debt while it is already $174,000 in the red, according to the archdiocese. Also, tuition would have nearly doubled, from $3,960 a year for one child to more than $7,500.

Many parishes in the Baltimore area have been affected by declining enrollment, Caine said. Factors including shifting demographics and economic realities, such as the loss of retirement benefits by Bethlehem Steel employees, affect whether families can afford to send their children to Catholic schools in eastern Baltimore County, he said.

The archdiocese consolidated three Northeast Baltimore elementary schools for the 2005-2006 school year and closed three other schools elsewhere in the city.

Maria Fajardo-Matthews, who worked in St. Rita's before- and after-school program, and whose son, Jeromy Fajardo, attended kindergarten there last year, called the school's closing "heart-wrenching and heart-rending."

"We weren't a typical school. We were a family," said Fajardo-Matthews, who said she is considering home-schooling her son next year.

Registration fees paid to St. Rita will be refunded, according to the archdiocese. Enough seats are available at Sacred Heart of Mary and Our Lady of Hope/St. Luke School to accommodate children who were registered for St. Rita, Caine said. Registration deadlines will be waived and fees will be deferred until refunds have been received.

Teachers and other staff members will be placed in other schools within the archdiocese, Caine said.

Superintendent of Catholic Schools Ronald J. Valenti will meet with parents at 7 p.m. Monday at the school. Parents will be able to meet with principals of nearby schools Tuesday night, Caine said.


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