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Alumnae organize to save the shuttered Institute of Notre Dame. ‘We will find a way,’ they say. | COMMENTARY

Members of the Institute of Notre Dame's class of 2016 displayed their senior class rings outside the school in East Baltimore. The school closed on June 30, 2020. Alumnae want to reestablish it.
Members of the Institute of Notre Dame's class of 2016 displayed their senior class rings outside the school in East Baltimore. The school closed on June 30, 2020. Alumnae want to reestablish it.

Over their many decades in East Baltimore, the School Sisters of Notre Dame educated and empowered a long line of girls to become smart, strong-willed women who believe anything is possible. And, because of that, I’m willing to bet the Institute of Notre Dame will live again.

Who do you think you’re dealing with here?

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Graduates of IND include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and they are merely the most famous of an estimated 7,000 living alumnae. A spirited group of IND grads have started a serious movement to save the school or recreate it.

That’s what I took away from an online town hall staged Wednesday night by Saving IND, Inc. The group’s motto: “We will find a way.”

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If they find a way, it will likely be without the Schools Sisters of Notre Dame, the Catholic order that established IND in 1847 and closed it, cold and hard, this spring. The sisters apparently have no interest in reviving the school despite an outpouring of offers of help from alumnae.

The Atlantic-Midwest provincial leader of the SSND has not returned phone calls to representatives of Saving IND. My request for comments went unanswered, too.

If the sisters have no interest in running Maryland’s oldest Catholic college prep school for girls — they cited significant financial challenges and declining enrollment as the main reasons for closing after 173 years — many of its graduates do.

Saving IND formed quickly in May. In fact, it held its first meeting just four days after hearing the sudden announcement that the school would close for good on June 30. Graduates of IND were sad, they were shocked, and they were determined to do something.

“We were unwilling to accept the decision,” says Drena Fertetta, Highlandtown native, member of the IND class of 1983, telecommunications executive and chair of the Save IND steering committee. “We came together and haven’t looked back.”

The group, she says, includes women who graduated from the school over a span of many years. They work in a wide array of fields, including education, real estate, media relations, information technology, philanthropy and nonprofit management. They meet three times a week and are in the midst of an analysis of IND’s strengths and weaknesses.

I was surprised to hear that IND’s longtime location on Aisquith Street was no longer considered an option. I assumed the revival project would start there — acquiring the old buildings and raising funds to renovate them. But that’s now a non-starter because of the lack of response from the SSND.

“We’ve moved on,” Fertetta says.

So, if IND is to reopen it will likely be at another location. And that location will not be determined until after a deep dive into data about Baltimore population trends, potential feeder schools, the availability of athletic fields, affordability, some 26 criteria in all. “We have two alums who are statisticians and they agreed to collect this big data for us,” Fertetta says. “We won’t know until we get the data and dig into it. We can’t say [how much money] we need to raise until we know where we would like to land.”

The school was based in East Baltimore all these years and came to serve a diverse student body, with many girls on scholarship. Is that still part of the plan? There’s already an SSND girls school in Baltimore County — Notre Dame Prep. It’s known as “the one in the valley” while IND was always known as “the one in the alley.” Wasn’t serving girls in the city part of IND’s mission?

“Absolutely,” Fertetta says. “We are considering that because community outreach is a big part of what we learned, a big part of IND, a big part of our tradition. Regardless of where we physically end up, we’d like to continue the works of Sister Hildie.”

That’s a reference to the late Hildie Sutherland, a 4-foot-8 sister who for 60 years nurtured a bond between IND and the surrounding neighborhood, including Latrobe Homes public housing, with food donations and other acts of charity.

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“If all the criteria [for a new location] could be met in the city, that would be our first choice,” Fertetta says.

While location hasn’t been decided, other things have been: The new IND needs to build on its reputation for sound academics, student body diversity and community outreach. It needs to find and retain effective teachers and pay them sustainable wages. It needs a consistent student recruitment effort. It needs experienced managers to handle the school’s finances.

“So far,” Fertetta says, looking over the long list of challenges facing her group, “I don’t see anything that’s insurmountable.”

I asked why this is so important to her.

“A lot of what I learned came from family,” Fertetta says. “But the education and foundation that I received in four years at IND — the faith and education — gave me the strength I needed to go out in the world. It is a unique school. I’ve traveled all over the world with my job and I don’t hear people speak of their schools the way people speak of IND. I owe it to a generation of girls, who maybe have not been born yet, to be able to have that same experience, and if it’s in my power to help them along the way, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

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