The Diocese of Springfield has ordered an assessment of each of the remaining Catholic elementary schools in western Massachusetts.
Bishop Mitchell Rozanski has created a panel of two veteran educators and a longtime business executive to undertake a “comprehensive review” of the elementary schools where he said declining enrollments and rising costs represent a dark cloud over the future.
" Rather than sit still and wait for those clouds to arrive, I think it best to undertake actions now which will help preserve Catholic education for future generations. With that in mind, I have assembled a team which in the coming months will undertake a comprehensive review of our Catholic elementary schools, to see how we might strengthen and preserve them," said Rozanski.
The three-member panel’s findings will be reported to a special commission, which will then make recommendations to Rozanski.
" Timeframe would be to have recommendations by late summer or in September 2018," said Rozanski.
During the last decade, enrollment has plummeted and the number of diocesan schools in western Massachusetts was reduced by half as a result of closings and mergers.
At the same time, tuition costs rose, the number of charter schools increased, and the region’s school-aged population as a whole declined.
" We just don't have the number of families we once had," said Rozanski.
There are currently 11 elementary schools located in 10 communities, mostly concentrated in greater-Springfield. There are only three schools in Berkshire County, where the last Catholic high school, St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield, closed last June.
Enrollment in the elementary schools is now about 2,600.
The study panel appointed by Rozanski consists of Amy Gelinas, former head of the now-closed St. Joseph Central High School, Paul Gagliarducci, who is in charge of the Pope Francis High School project in Springfield, and Ellen Dzuira, a former vice president at Mass Mutual Insurance.
Gelinas said the group plans to study each school individually and also look at regional and national trends.
" We have found(nationally), even just in a brief look so far, there are a lot of communities having just as much difficulty with enrollment as we are and they have turned things around," said Gelinas.
The school review was announced Tuesday at a news conference at St. Joan of Arc School in Chicopee.
Enrollment there is about 200 children.
Principal Paula Jenkins said the cloud over the future of the parish schools is a big deterrent to many parents considering sending their children to Catholic schools.
" (Parents) understand the tuition has to increase and they are willing to make sacrifices to send their children here, but their big concern is ' I will sacrifice if you can tell me you will still be here in five years, or my child will graduate from here'," said Jenkins.
National Catholic Schools Week begins next week when open houses are scheduled at many of the schools in western Massachusetts.