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Liberta Russo, of Bellmawr, age 89

Three Elementary Schools and Two High Schools in the Camden Diocese Closing

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The Good Shepherd Regional Elementary School, Collingswood one of five schools to be closed

At the end of the current school term on June 30, 2020. The three elementary schools and two high schools are:

— Good Shepherd Regional Elementary School in Collingswood

— Saint Joseph Regional Elementary School in Hammonton

— Cape Trinity Catholic School in Wildwood

— Saint Joseph High School in Hammonton

— Wildwood Catholic High School in Wildwood

“The decision to close the schools is difficult,” the diocese said in announcing the closures. “Years of dwindling community support in the form of declining student enrollment and local fundraising, despite significant diocesan and parish financial support, has necessitated this decision.

“The administrations, faculties, families and donors who have supported these schools should be commended for their efforts to keep these schools open and accessible,” the diocese said. “However, the decreasing priority given to Catholic education by many parents, including Catholic parents, ultimately weakened the viability of these schools.”

All affected students will have the opportunity to continue their Catholic education at nearby regional Catholic elementary and high schools.

Over the last five years, each school has seen a precipitous drop in registrations despite the best efforts of the school administrators to implement new enrollment and academic initiatives.  

Over the same time period, these three elementary schools have received a combined $3.8 million in financial support from the diocese and/or local parishes to sustain operations while keeping tuition as affordable as possible. Wildwood Catholic High School has received nearly $750,000 in support and Saint Joseph High School has received loan support totaling $1.1 million but currently carries a debt of $6.6 million. 

“Unfortunately, the continued loss of enrollment over that time has strained these schools’ finances to the point that even substantial diocesan and parish support can no longer meet the regular operational expenses of the schools,” the diocese said. “Finally, compounding the already existing financial and enrollment issues at these schools is the expectation that they will suffer further negative impacts due to the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated business shutdowns and personnel layoffs that have been felt throughout the region.”

In Wildwood, school administrators wrote in a letter to parents that the economic pressures related to COVID-19 burdened a system that was already struggling financially.

“Our enrollment was promising to increase until the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. As were our hopes for increasing revenue from several hopeful fund-raising endeavors also scuttled by the pandemic,” they wrote.

Immediately after news of the closure, an organization was formed to try to keep its schools open. In a letter to the school community, Joe Bogle and Carole Pantalone, the coordinators of Save Wildwood Catholic Academy, stated that a priority is to raise at least $1 million and develop new ways to raise funds on an ongoing basis. They also stressed the need for next year’s students to register by May 11.

“We have been in this situation before and then, as we must do now, everyone pulled together. We must be positive, optimistic and hopeful,” they said.

In his letter to families, Father Allain B. Caparas, principal and president of Saint Joseph High School, used the term “devastating” more than once in describing his reaction to the closure.

He wrote that the pandemic added stress to the school operations and fundraising, but he also noted that the necessary transition to remote learning “has been remarkable and shows your steadfast dedication to your children and their Catholic education.”

“We do hope that you will consider continuing your child’s education in another Catholic high school,” he wrote.

The response from Saint Joseph Elementary School sounded similar themes.

“Your response to the rapid change to remote learning during this time of social distancing has been so supportive and shows your total dedication to your children and their Catholic education,” wrote Father David Rivera, administrator of Saint Mary of Mount Carmel Parish, and Sister Betty Jean Takacs, MPF, principal.

“That response demonstrates the value of a Catholic school education, both academically and spiritually,” they wrote in a joint letter to families. “We have been assured that there is availability for our grade K-8 students in neighboring Catholic schools.

The decision to close the schools was made in consultation with regional pastors, school advisory boards, the College of Consultors, the Diocesan Finance Council, the Office of Catholic Schools and the Diocesan Finance Office.

Dr. Bill Watson, Superintendent of Schools, described the decision to close as painful but inevitable.

“Closing a Catholic school is gut-wrenching for everyone involved, from the principal and pastor to the superintendent and bishop. However, as stewards of the financial resources entrusted to us, we came to the difficult conclusion that low enrollment at these schools caused the strain on the funds available to become too great,” he said.

“I am deeply grateful to the faculty and staff who have given so much to these schools and to the dedicated parents who have continued to send their children to them,” he added. “We look forward to welcoming these families into another Catholic school community next year.”