UPDATE: Inwood’s Good Shepherd School will remain open after the Archdiocese of New York announced the school had presented a convincing plan to ensure its long-term sustainability.
Good Shepherd was one of 32 schools named by the archdiocese as “at-risk” in November due to heavy subsidies and shrinking enrollments. School officials, given one month to devise a plan to save it, staged a series of meetings with parents and alumni and cast around for ideas to keep the 85-year-old school afloat and financially independent of the archdiocese.
On Jan. 11, the archdiocese announced that Good Shepherd would be one of only four schools on the list to remain open.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE FROM Dec. 14
As the littlest members of the Good Shepherd student body take the stage, a crowd of parents, grandparents and alumni rush toward them. Digital cameras held high, they’re there to record every tentative look and shy grin the children throw out to the packed auditorium. Holiday-themed decorations line the walls and two giant snowmen frame the stage as the students sweetly make their way through verses of “The Little Drummer Boy.” It all makes for a familiar scene, with one exception: It could be this Inwood Catholic school’s last-ever Christmas concert.
Since Nov. 9, the future of the Good Shepherd School has been under a cloud. A fixture of the neighborhood for 85 years, it’s facing closure after being named by the Archdiocese of New York as “at-risk” following a decade of steady enrollment decline. Although school officials and parents knew the numbers of enrolled students had dropped – to 141 this year from 523 in 1999 – when the news came that they had a month to put a rescue plan together, it still prompted a scramble for ideas.
“For me, I don’t think I could ever walk by and know it’s not the Good Shepherd School,” says parent and alumna Regina Christoforatos. “It’s just so sad.”
On Dec. 6, one month after the archdiocese’s list came out, Father Robert Abbatiello, pastor of the adjoining Good Shepherd Church, submitted the school’s final outline for how it planned to increase student numbers. He presented it in person at the archdiocese. Thirty-one schools were on the archdiocese’s at-risk list and while a couple asked for an extension to the Dec. 6 deadline, all made a pitch for their continued existence, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling says.
For Abbatiello and school principal Mary Singer, it has been a long month of meetings, brainstorming and soul-searching. “We really need your support right now and we need your prayers,” Abbatiello tells the Christmas concert audience.
Planning to save the school eats up much of the holidays for Abbatiello and Singer. The day after Thanksgiving, they spent hours with Good Shepherd alumnus Manny Ramirez at the school, sifting through the e-mailed suggestions of parents and former students.. Abbatiello spent more time on the plan that weekend, communicating with two other alumni and redrafting until it was ready to be presented publicly.
Three days later, on Nov. 29, he outlined the plan to a meeting of parents, alumni and school supporters. Of the school and its future, he is hopeful but matter-of-fact. “We believe we’ve got something good, but we believe it could be better,” he says.
Abbatiello, Singer and Ramirez are three-fifths of Good Shepherd’s newly formed executive committee. Before Nov. 9, the committee didn’t exist. With two other alumni – John Brennan and Richard Scarlata, both members of the class of 1956 – it took them three weeks to put together a five-year proposal to save Good Shepherd.
It’s a tight timeline in which to craft such a document, but one that Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese, defends. For the 31 schools named on the list, student numbers had clearly been low and subsidies, both from local parishes and the archdiocese, had been “very large”.
“This is not just something that dropped out of the sky,” he says.
Three of the schools named on the list were in northern Manhattan, including All Saints and St Joseph’s of the Holy Family, both in Harlem.
To illustrate why Good Shepherd was included, on Nov. 22 Singer presents a meeting of about 100 parents, alumni and supporters with the enrollment figures since 1999. The school needs to demonstrate how it will attract 160 more students, more than doubling its enrollment, by next year. Quiet realization of just what the community is up against sinks in across the auditorium.
The plan Abbatiello and Singer take to the archdiocese’s Reconfiguration Committee centers on a “monumental push” to increase enrollment. The proposal includes a new organizational structure made up of subcommittees of parents and alumni dedicated to fundraising and promotions. It recognizes the school has done a poor job of promoting itself to the Inwood community and recommends numerous Open House events for 2011.
For Juan and Dalba Castrillon, the possibility that their two daughters’ school may close came as a terrible disappointment — but not necessarily a shock. They say it has been clear for some time that school numbers were on a downward slide. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
“We all kind of saw something happening that wasn’t right,” Mrs. Castrillon says of the drop in enrollment. “But no one stood up to say that hey, we’ve got to do something about this.
“It’s hard, how do you explain to your kids that, as adults, we kind of dropped the ball?”
The Castrillons are among a small group of parents and alumni who have taken the fight to save the school online, establishing Yahoo! and Facebook groups as well as organizing a Web-based petition directing people to write to the archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, Timothy McNiff. So far, more than 280 names have been gathered, many from former Good Shepherd students and their parents.
“The whole thing with doing it on Facebook was so we could reach out to as many alumni as possible,” says Christoforatos, who organized the Facebook group. “I’m friends with over 1,300 people on Facebook and 80 percent are friends from Good Shepherd and high school.”
Christoforatos is an Inwoodite, “born and bred,” and remembers when she first transferred to Good Shepherd from another Washington Heights elementary school. Good Shepherd was a place her Greek Orthodox family finally felt they belonged, she says. Her connection was so strong she returned as a teenager to work in its after-school program and again as a substitute teacher after college. Her daughter Zoe, 8, has been a student there since pre-K.
“It was so different, it was a family-oriented environment,” she says. “We were taken in regardless of religion and race.”
Christoforatos continues to value the family-focused atmosphere the school creates, as well as the fact there are teachers and staff still working who were there when she herself was a student. The intimacy of the school is clear at the Christmas concert where staff mingle with the crowd, greeting parents by name and recognizing past students with hugs.
It’s exactly this personal, close interaction that appeals to Adrian Carel. His daughter Paige entered seventh grade at Good Shepherd this September after transferring from Texas and, he says, she’s been “instantly included” from her first day.
“I like that they have close relationships with the teachers and the teachers pretty much always know what’s going on,” he says. “It’s a one-on-one environment and they can have that individual attention that you don’t often get in other schools.”
More than that, he values the relationships the students develop with one another. He remembers meeting a little girl “as tall as my waist” on his walk to school with Paige one day. She was a younger student from a lower grade and Paige knew her name. The two walked to school together, talking all the way.
But by many accounts, Good Shepherd slipped not just in student numbers but also quality over the past decade. The Great Schools website posts mixed reviews about the school, some from the time of the former administration and others more recent. Discipline, of students and teachers, were cited as major problems while other reviewers complained that Singer, brought in as principal in 2006, was too strict and did not communicate well with parents.
Relationships with the parish had been erratic; since the Franciscan friars took over in 2006, it had not been associated with school administration, something that will change if archdiocese support is pulled next year. Neither Singer nor Abbatiello responded to requests for interviews.
But Christoforatos credits Singer with turning the school around, increasing standardized test scores and restoring discipline over what she says had become a sometimes unruly learning environment. Test results the principal presented to parents at a meeting on Nov. 22 showed dramatic improvement over the years of her tenure, particularly in religious education.
“Ms Singer came in to a hellhole, she really did,” Christoforatos says. “She brought in people who really turned the school around and other schools wish that they had teachers like that.”
Good test scores, however, are not enough to guarantee a school’s survival. Zwilling says what really counts is enrollment. Poorly-enrolled schools suck up large subsidies from the archdiocese, which currently pours $18 million into education. With revenues from tuition, fundraising and building rental of $920,000 a year but expenses of $1.275 million, Good Shepherd still comes up short. Once the archdiocese withdraws its support, if Good Shepherd is allowed to stay open, it will need to make up the $355,000 a year shortfall – a situation that can’t be solved by bake sales and spaghetti dinners, Abbatiello said at the Nov. 22 community meeting.
One week after the at-risk schools list was released, the archdiocese also put out its annual report for fiscal 2009 showing New York’s weak economy had shaved almost $19 million off the net value of its cash and fixed assets, or 8.5 percent. Zwilling denies the loss is behind the push to close or merge the schools on the list.
“Even if it were a robust economy and we had these same numbers of enrollment in our schools, we would still take a hard look and say that we can’t keep putting in $20 million to $30 million,” he says. “The financials of the archdiocese are what they are and we have to be good stewards, but that’s not a motivating factor.
“The decision on these schools is enrollment-driven. I think there are some cases where parents just assumed that the school will always be there. They don’t realize that if you only have 120 kids in grades K to eight, that’s not a viable school.”
The existence of the at-risk schools list had been rumored for weeks and was first flagged in the October release of the archdiocese’s “Pathways to Excellence” strategy for education reform. It followed the closure of two schools by the archdiocese last year and the merging of two others over the summer.
It also comes as the Catholic system in New York has shed thousands of students across the city. Zwilling confirmed a Daily News report that enrollment had dropped to 79,000 this year, from 94,000 two years ago.
Randall Reback, a Barnard College economist, says a number of factors could affect student enrollment. The economic downturn, increased choices for parents in public and charter schools and the shift of Catholic families out of traditional inner-city neighborhoods and into the suburbs all play a role.
“Many of the families have been using them as a relatively low-cost version of the private school system,” he says. “The fancy private schools in New York aren’t hurting at all, really it’s the families who pay a few thousand dollars a year who may have to think twice.”
Reback says a major challenge for the Catholic system in the future is how to retain strong donations from parishioners when more and more students at parish schools aren’t necessarily Catholic.
“The real question is that if there continues to be large numbers of non-Catholic students using the school, does that affect their support?” he says.
For the Good Shepherd community, the school’s religious education seems to be an important element in what attracts parents. At the Nov. 22 community meeting one parent stood up and urged officials to better emphasize the school’s faith-based framework when selling it to prospective families.
Jose Agosto, whose 12-year-old son, Joseph, is a student at Good Shepherd, says that even though his family members aren’t devout Catholics, it is important for him that his son grows up in that environment.
“You can’t forget about it,” he says. “That’s a value that me and my wife really want to impart on him.”
School officials hope that the affection families and alumni have for Good Shepherd translates into something more tangible. The school must show it has a plan for raising the $1 million over three years needed to cover the subsidies that have, until now, been provided by the archdiocese. In the week leading up to the Dec. 6 deadline, $330,000 had been pledged by three donors. An additional $35,000 had been raised for school scholarships, essential for the one-quarter of the students who rely on financial aid.
A pledge link on the school’s website – which does not come up on a Google search – went live the last week of November and small donations, including $50 from a 12-year-old student and a promise of $35 a year for five years from an unemployed supporter, started trickling in.
At the Christmas concert, which is so crowded the hall’s upstairs balcony has to be opened, a parent who wins $260 in a fundraising lottery immediately hands the money back to the school. Singer is clearly touched by the gesture.
“I think we can all see why we need to keep this school open,” she says.
The Good Shepherd plan is to gradually wean the school off the archdiocese’s support. By the executive committee’s estimate, next year’s subsidy could be cut to $125,000 and four years from now it will be able to operate with no subsidy at all.
It is a strategy parents and alumni applaud, but they seem to wish the problems had been recognized years ago. At the end of the concert, the best attended in years, parents are exultant. Dalba Castrillon later says they are filled with optimism for the school’s future.
Parish priest Abbatiello sends them off with words of hope. It’s all that is left now as they wait for a meeting with the Reconfiguration Committee on Dec. 15 and the final decision, expected in mid-January.
“We believe in Good Shepherd,” he says, “and we know that you do, too.”