St. Mark school in St. Paul restructuring; closing K-8, but preschool to remain open

| April 26, 2019 | 0 Comments

St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul will close its kindergarten through grade eight classrooms next academic year, school leaders announced April 26. Its preschool will remain open. MARIA WIERING | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul is restructuring due to a sharp decline in kindergarten-to-grade-eight enrollment and rising costs, its leaders announced April 26.

The school will not reopen to students in kindergarten and grades one to eight in the fall. Its preschool, which has been growing, will remain open.

“Over the past several months, the parish and school leadership at St. Mark’s Catholic Church have had to take a hard look at our budget,” Father Humberto Palomino, St. Mark’s pastor, said in an April 26 statement. “Because of decreasing enrollment and increasing costs, we have determined that significant budget reductions at the school are necessary.”

The school will eliminate 17 positions at the end of the school year, which will force the school to close its kindergarten to eighth grades, he said.

“Instead, our focus will be on our growing and thriving preschool classes,” he said.

Parish and school leadership notified teachers and staff, students’ parents and parishioners April 26.

According to data provided by the school, 32 students were enrolled for the 2019-2020 academic year. Since 1998, when there were 425 students, the school’s enrollment has decreased in most years. In 2013, there were 222 students; in 2016, there were 172; and in 2018, there were 139. In the current academic year, there were 90.

This year’s preschool class has 38 students. Enrollment is currently open for the next academic year, and school leaders are optimistic about its numbers, said Joe Hermerding, the parish’s business administrator.

“The preschool has been thriving for a long time,” he said.

In an interview April 26, school leaders expressed hope that they may eventually be in a position to rebuild the school grade by grade. The parish is growing in its number parishioners, including families with young children, Father Palomino said.

But for now, he said, the parish will be grieving the loss.

“It’s is difficult for all of us,” said Jim Wilgenbusch, chairman of the parish finance council. “This is not something that happened overnight, but rather … we’ve seen a decline in our student population for decades now. And sadly, that’s not unique to St. Mark’s. That’s been a pronounced national trend specifically for schools in urban areas.”

Parish leaders listed several factors they believed contributed to enrollment decline, including changing neighborhood demographics, families with fewer children, Catholics less interested in sending their children to Catholic schools and competition from other schools.

Closing the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade classrooms allows the parish to bring stability to its budget, which includes the school, Wilgenbusch said. Although the parish sees the school as an important ministry, it could not subsidize it with such a small enrollment, he said.

“The main thing going forward is that we’re grieving. We’re grieving as a single community, as a single family here at St. Mark’s, because … the school is not separate from the parish and has not operated that way,” he said.

Father Palomino added: “It was never a burden; it was always a blessing.”

Last spring, Father Palomino, a member of the Pro Ecclesia Sancta religious community, announced that the school was exploring the possibility of transitioning to a classical education model. That direction was confirmed in the fall under the leadership of a new principal, Edgar Alfonzo, who was previously principal of St. John Paul II Catholic School in Minneapolis.

School leaders hoped the new curriculum model would attract new students, but it wasn’t enough to reverse the trend, Wilgenbusch said.

The parish also offered a reduced tuition incentive for new students for the upcoming school year.

St. Mark parish has worked with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Office for the Mission of Catholic Education as it explored the school’s future and determined its plan for reorganization, leaders said. The school is aiding the families of enrolled students in finding a different Catholic school for the fall, and it is also helping teachers and faculty whose positions have been eliminated network with other area Catholic schools.

“We are grateful to all our teachers and staff for their commitment to educating our students in our Catholic faith, and grateful to the community for sharing the last century with us,” Father Palomino said in the statement.

The parish founded the school in 1913. It was dedicated by Archbishop John Ireland and staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Enrollment hit 600 within six years, and a growing student body prompted several building expansions over the decades. Enrollment peaked in the 1960-1961 school year at 1,534 students, according to the school’s website. The parish and school have been served by Pro Ecclesia Sancta priests, brothers and sisters since 2009.

The parish does not plan to sell the school building, and its leaders plan to seek parishioner input about its use, Father Palomino said.

“We never expected that the archdiocese was going to close us, (and) we never said we weren’t going to keep investing in the school. It was always about whether enough people wanted to come to the school,” said Patrick Shrake, a lifelong parishioner who graduated from St. Mark’s Catholic School in 1980 and who sent three of his children to it. “I won’t give up hope.”

Editor’s note: Story updated April 28.

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