After 61 years, the last day of school

Visitation caught in demographic changes affecting urban Catholic schools

EAST HARRIET — Each year, the entire student body of Visitation Catholic School gathered in the adjoining Visitation Church to pose for a photograph.

Those photos line the first-floor hallway leading to Principal Dan Gleason’s office. A trip down the hallway is a trip through time, showing a group of smiling, uniformed boys and girls who, over the years, appear to slowly dwindle in number.

There will be just 42 students at Visitation when the school closes for good in June. After 61 years as Visitation, the building at 4530 Lyndale Ave. S. next year will house Fraser Academy, a public charter school.

The school planned a farewell celebration for May 31.

Gleason said declining enrollment was just one of the factors that led to the decision to close the school. A greater percentage of that shrinking student body also needed tuition assistance, straining parish finances.
It’s a combination of factors that has hit urban Catholic schools across the country, a one-two punch Visitation could not fend off with a fundraising campaign launched last year.

“I think if we had foresight, if we had done this a year or two ago, we’d still be here,” Gleason said. “I think we just got going too late.”

Last spring, Visitation church and school leaders set out to raise about $100,000 by this winter. They made the goal through a combination of donations and pledges, said Tom Schuster, a church trustee.

By then, though, it wasn’t enough.

Enrollment this fall dropped by about a fifth, to 45 students from 57 students at the end of last school year. Lower enrollment, and lower income from tuition, raised the bar for fundraising, Schuster said.

“Even if we had been able to bring in 100 students, we were expecting a lot of those [students] would need financial support,” he added.

Both Schuster and Gleason said the school was dedicated to making a place for students whose families could not afford full tuition. But that mission became harder to fulfill as the number of families needing assistance grew, especially over the last five years, Gleason said.

“The parish has continued to face financial difficulties, itself,” he said. “I think that the parish’s ability to kind of help out and subsidize the schools … was maybe a little bit weaker.”

Schuster said the parish attempted to keep its subsidy for the school below $150,000 a year. But with fewer young families joining and contributing to the parish, it was difficult to provide even that amount, he said.

Nearly 43 percent of the nation’s 7,378 Catholic schools are located in urban and inner-city areas, the National Catholic Education Association stated in its annual report for 2007–2008. The report added, though, that those schools struggle with population declines and financial difficulties that make it difficult to remain open.

While the total number of Catholic schools has been in steady decline since a peak in the 1960s, the report added, the number of suburban Catholic schools has increased.

Schuster said Visitation was caught up in that shift to the suburbs.

“We’re not unique in that way,” he said. “It’s part of what’s going on all around us, and not just in the city but urban areas in general.”

Even though the decision to close the school was a difficult one, Schuster said, Visitation Church would be on better footing going forward. Instead of providing a subsidy, the church will earn income from Fraser Academy, which will help revitalize the aging church, he predicted.

“That ability for us to be a ministry and outreach and really bring some fresh blood into the community, now, has expanded,” Schuster said. “… As sad as it is to see the school close, there’s a huge silver lining.”

FYI

What: Visitation Catholic School Farewell
Celebration

Who: Current and former teachers, staff, students and members of Visitation Church are invited. Cost is $25 at the door or $20 in advance. For more information, or to register, call 822-3139 or visit www.visitationcatholicchurch.com.

When: 5 p.m.–11:30 p.m. Saturday, May 31

Where: 4530 Lyndale Ave. S.