Transition team and year will help Omaha schools address merger issues
A six-member team will help guide Blessed Sacrament and St. Philip Neri through a year of transition before the schools merge for the 2011-2012 school year.
Blessed Sacrament School, 6316 N. 30th St., will close at the end of the 2010-2011 school year, and Blessed Sacrament students will be invited to attend St. Philip Neri School, 8202 N. 31st St.
With the closing of Blessed Sacrament, St. Philip Neri will serve students from Miller Park to the south as far north as Ponca Hills along N. 30th St.
The transition team will include one parent, one teacher and one school board member from each parish, Rob Laird, Blessed Sacrament principal, told the Catholic Voice. The team will work through merger issues such as tuition and school capacity, he said.
"That's the gift of a transition year," said Laird, who will serve as principal at both schools during the coming school year. Dick Cuva, principal at St. Philip Neri, plans to retire at the end of the current school year.
In addition to the transition team, Blessed Sacrament is in the midst of creating a transition Web site that will be part of Blessed Sacrament's site. The new site will have updates on transition meetings, events, the transition team and issues being discussed, as well as frequently asked questions and answers.
The Archdiocese of Omaha announced the merger March 25. The decision came as part of an annual review of the archdiocesan Catholic schools. Archbishop George J. Lucas made the decision in consultation with Msgr. James Gilg, superintendent of Catholic schools, and other archdiocesan officials.
The CORE Board, which provides direction for Omaha's inner-city Catholic schools, also provided input and assistance.
"This is an opportunity for all of us to build new bonds around something we believe in," Father Craig Loecker, pastor of both parishes, said in a press release. "Together these two communities will build a solid foundation for Catholic education along N. 30th St."
Drop in enrollment
Currently 142 students, including those in the preschool and pre-kindergarten program, are enrolled at Blessed Sacrament, while St. Philip Neri, has 177 enrolled this school year in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Both Blessed Sacrament and St. Philip Neri schools have experienced a drop in enrollment in recent years, which has played into each school's financial struggles.
Founded in 1920, Blessed Sacrament's enrollment peaked in the early 1960s with more than 840 students.
St. Philip Neri, founded in 1922, experienced high enrollment in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s with 225-230 students enrolled each year. Enrollment dropped about 10 years ago, Cuva said.
This school year, St. Philip Neri has fewer than 20 students in each class, and Blessed Sacrament's average class size is in the mid-teens, he said.
Current capacity for each class at St. Philip Neri is 30, but Laird thinks that's something that will be discussed by the transition team, especially with so many Blessed Sacrament students potentially enrolling.
"I don't see why we can't begin to increase capacity at St. Philip Neri to accommodate more students," Laird said. "In fact, long term that has to be our goal."
One of the big challenges he faces is finding a place for Blessed Sacrament students, he said.
"Will all of them go up to St. Phil's? I don't know. I can't answer that, but I want to create space - whatever that means - for as many as possible."
While there will be no staff cuts at St. Philip Neri as a result of the merger, Laird said two teachers are retiring next year and those positions will be filled with current Blessed Sacrament teachers. In addition, two grades at Blessed Sacrament will move to St. Philip Neri, which has a newer building, next year. Which grades will move is yet to be decided.
Laid said the ultimate goal will be moving as many staff members as possible to St. Philip Neri.
St. Philip Neri's building was remodeled in 2005. Exterior walls were repaired, insulation was replaced, double-pained glass was installed, and all rooms became air-conditioned.
Although he hopes the Blessed Sacrament School building is used in some way, Laird said a decision hasn't been made.
Blessed Sacrament Parish will continue to support the students currently attending the school, providing scholarships for them to attend St. Philip Neri.
Current tuition at St. Philip Neri for non-Catholic or non-parishioners is $3,500 per student per year. Blessed Sacrament's tuition is $1,000 per family per year.
Blessed Sacrament students who transfer to St. Philip Neri next school year will pay the Blessed Sacrament tuition rate and Blessed Sacrament will fund the difference, Laird said.
He's unsure what the tuition will be for Blessed Sacrament students for the merger year, he said.
Two separate tuition schedules wouldn't be ideal in the years ahead, Laird said. "The idea would be that there's a fund created for those who cannot afford St. Phil's tuition regardless of whether they were originally at St. Phil's or Blessed Sacrament."
Laird said Blessed Sacrament has been making several changes to improve its development program.
"We have this great adopt-a-student program we just started and a few other ways of marketing our school to different groups that are in the works," he said.
Development efforts will continue because Laird said he wants to make sure St. Philip Neri is secure and also can open its doors to children who can't afford tuition.
Dealing with emotions
Although the recent decision means the closing of Blessed Sacrament School, Laird said he considers it a merger because Blessed Sacrament's development program and administration will be at St. Philip Neri as will many Blessed Sacrament students.
A parishioner at Blessed Sacrament, he said he has received mixed reaction to the news of the school merger.
There's sadness for many parishioners who have put in their time and energy for years to keep the school open, he said.
"It's like if you grow up in a house and then you sell the house, you feel like the memories somehow aren't there," he said.
On the other hand, many were happy to know about it now and have a year to make it work, Laird said.
Cuva sees this merger as an opportunity to unify the strengths of both schools, which complement each other, he said.
"I think long term we can even start talking about serving more students than we are now and that's exciting," he said. "And I think we provide an opportunity to address donors, those interested in supporting Catholic education, as a unified group."
Cuva said he understands that change is difficult, but he's confident things will work out for the better.
"I think it's going to be good for Catholic education here in North Omaha to have a stronger elementary that's more viable."