IMMACULATE CONCEPTION Does first bell for pupils also toll for school?
The school has opened early; the new principal's attitude is that it won't be closed.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- It's 10:15 a.m., and fifth-grader Lonnae Blooewarth is sitting in front of a computer screen at Immaculate Conception School.
She's learning to type, but she's thinking about what she'd be doing if she weren't in school.
"I'd probably be watching 'The Price Is Right,'" the 10-year-old said Tuesday, the first day of classes for the small Catholic school near downtown. "That's probably what my friends are doing, or they're outside, riding bikes."
For the fifth consecutive year, Immaculate Conception has the earliest starting date among schools throughout the Mahoning and Shenango valleys.
While children in most other schools have an additional two or three weeks of summer fun before school starts, Immaculate's 121 pupils were in class, hard at work, on Tuesday.
"It's a fact of life here," Principal Amy Ellis said. "Most parents that I've talked to are ready to send their kids back to school."
A cloudy future
This could be a crucial year for Immaculate, a fixture on Oak Street for more than 100 years that has struggled in recent years to remain open.
Dr. Michael Skube, the new superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, said he will meet in September with the pastors of four Youngstown parochial elementary schools to talk about the schools' futures. The schools are Immaculate Conception, St. Brendan, St. Edward and St. Matthias.
"We need to start now in order to deal with next year in terms of what is going to take place," he said.
The diocese closed three Catholic elementary schools in Youngstown in the late 1990s: St. Patrick and St. Anthony in 1996 and St. Dominic in 1999.
Immaculate, where the majority of pupils are black, non-Catholic and from low-income families, may be the most vulnerable. Enrollment has plunged from 214 in 1996 to 121 this year,
Ellis, who taught at Immaculate from 1997 to 2000 before returning as principal this year, said rumors of the school's demise are routine.
"You can have two attitudes," she said. "I'm here for a year or I'm here for 10 years. The attitude I have is that the school is going to be here."
And as long as she is principal, Ellis would like to see the longer, modified calendar to remain, or be expanded. When the new calendar was introduced five years ago, classes opened the first week of August.
"I'd like to see it start shifting back to early August, but that can't happen overnight," she said. "It has to be something slowly put back into place."
Retaining or expanding the modified school calendar will depend in part on Skube's support.
Immaculate's calendar was started under Dr. Nicholas Wolsonovich, former diocese superintendent who resigned a year ago. Wolsonovich was a strong advocate of year-round schools and encouraged diocese schools to adopt the concept; only Immaculate followed through.
Skube, who became head of the Catholic schools eight weeks ago, said year-round education won't be a priority in his administration. "I'm going to have other, different types of emphasis besides year-round school," he said.