Frostburg’s St. Michael School, one of two remaining Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore west of Hagerstown, is closing.
Father James Hannon, pastor of St. Michael Parish, told staff members earlier this week of his decision to cease operations of the 116 year-old school in spring 2009. Parents of the 85-student school were sent a letter of the announcement, Father Hannon said, asking them to speak with their children. He said he would also meet with parents and visit classes to talk with students.
“There is, of course, sadness at the announcement,” Father Hannon told The Catholic Review. “Members of the staff have been involved with St. Michael School for some years – some even sent their children to the school. They have given a lot of themselves very generously over the years.”
Students will be encouraged to attend Bishop Walsh School in Cumberland. St. Michael serves pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Dr. Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools, said about half of the student body was in pre-kindergarten. An early childhood program will continue at St. Michael, the pastor added.
Father Hannon confirmed the parish will offer financial assistance to families from St. Michael who attend Bishop Walsh and subsidize busing for the nine-mile trip to the Cumberland school.
The school boasted classes of 60 or more in the early 20th century and had more than 100 students earlier this decade. St. Michael’s leadership staved off a potential closure a year ago through aggressive fundraising and advertising, but there were too many obstacles to overcome.
“I don’t think we want to underestimate the efforts of parents,” Dr. Valenti said of the efforts to keep the school open. “I hate to say it’s a band-aid, but in many ways it is. We still have to recruit and retain students. When that base erodes, there’s a continual spiral down.”
Father Hannon said there were “three interlocking reasons” to close the school: a steady decline in enrollment, a widening affordability gap and the inability of the parish to provide sufficient support.
Many families with roots in Western Maryland moved out in the last half century to pursue job opportunities in larger cities. The parish ceased subsidizing the school, which was founded in 1891, in recent years.
“The question of the viability of the school has been floating for a few years,” Father Hannon said. “There has been a steady decline in enrollment. I think it is fair to say that most parishioners have known that the school’s future has been in question for some time. It has been an especially focused question in the last two years.”
The threat of school closings has loomed large over the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the country during the current economic downturn. Educators are trying to convince families Catholic schools are not a luxury, but a necessity.
Archdiocesan officials have asked schools to take innovative measures to stay open, including self-assessments for long-term viability.
“All of us are holding our breath,” Dr. Valenti told The Catholic Review. “It’s a time when we accent the broad need for support of Catholic schools – not just from the parents who send their children to Catholic schools.”
Emotions among current families and alumni of St. Michael are bound to run high in the next few months, Father Hannon said.
“I know many parishioners who have attended St. Michael’s, and they speak very highly of their experience at the school,” he said. “They are solid parishioners whose Catholic faith is very much part of their lives. This speaks well of the school.”
Staff correspondent George Matysek contributed to this story.