ST. MATTHIAS School forced to borrow, or close
Enrollment has declined from a high of about 500 in the '50s to just 70 today.
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- For the first time in its 88-year history, St. Matthias School is going to have to borrow money to keep its doors open.
"I have no other option," said Monsignor Peter Polando.
He declined to reveal how much money the school will need, saying he first must discuss the matter with his parish and finance councils.
Monsignor Polando said he may have to borrow money as soon as October.
Declining enrollment is the reason for the school's financial crunch.
Facts and figures
It costs about $500,000 a year to run the education program for pupils in preschool through the eighth grade. Nearly all of that money comes only from tuition and regular church collections, Monsignor Polando said.
Tuition costs start at $1,750 a year for a single parishioner child and $2,350 for a nonparishioner child.
The school does get about $30,000 a year in administrative reimbursement costs from the state, and the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown has pledged $10,000 to help keep the school open this year, but the diocese makes no regular financial commitment, he said.
Classes began Aug. 24.
St. Matthias School opened in the church basement in 1917 and moved to its current building at 2800 Shady Run Road in 1952 when enrollment reached nearly 500 pupils.
That number steadily has been declining, mirroring Youngstown's population decline, said Monsignor Polando, pointing out the school had 240 pupils when he came to the church in 1994.
Enrollment today is down to 70, and there are eight teachers, said Principal Cheryl Jablonski. She's new to that job this year, after having taught first grade in the school for 12 years.
The demographics of the city's South Side have changed, and the population has shifted, Monsignor Polando said, noting that much of the younger Catholic population has moved out of the immediate area.
Another factor is that the whole value system of Catholic education has changed, he said. Declining enrollments at Catholic schools across the nation are an ongoing problem, he said, citing tuition costs and changes in personal priorities that have Catholic parents sending their children to public schools.
"The writing may be on the wall for us," he said.
Principals of St. Matthias, St. Nicholas, St. Luke, St. Charles, Holy Family and St. Joseph The Provider have been meeting regularly since last October looking for ways to keep Catholic education here alive, he added.
The issue at St. Matthias came to a head in the spring when the church financial council said the school should be closed.
The parish council wanted to keep it open, however, so Monsignor Polando took a poll of parishioners after church services in April and found nearly unanimous support for the school.
Jablonski said the school has doubled up in some grade-level classes this year for the first time to help control costs.
Kindergarten and first grade meet in a single classroom. Second and third grade, and fourth and fifth grades are doing the same, although they split up during the day for specific instruction in things like reading and math, she said.
Teachers handling the double grades are getting additional help from other teachers and aides in the building so that each class level is getting exactly what it's supposed to be getting from the teacher, and everyone gets extra help from the aide, she said.
"The children are still going to get the best education they can get, and the classes are small," she said.
Should additional pupils enroll, it would be a simple matter to separate the class levels again, she said.
In addition to her principal duties, Jablonski teaches kindergarten and first grade in the morning.
She has a long personal history with the school, having attended St. Matthias herself as a child and sending her own two children to classes here. She is a lifelong parish member.
"We want to try and stay open. Our goal is to find a way to keep it open," she said.
The school will operate this year and keep a positive attitude about survival, but there is always the option of sending St. Matthias children to other Catholic schools should this school be forced to close, Monsignor Polando said.