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Catholic Schools Gain Foothold Five Years After Closings

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Rochester: Catholic Schools Gain Foothold Five Years After Closings
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It has been five years since more than half of Monroe County's diocese-run Catholic schools closed; a move that the Diocese deemed necessary in order to sustain the remaining 10 elementary and middle schools. After the closings were announced, it left many families angry and upset.

"That announcement happened in January and that was really tough for the kids."

Betsy Lawless remembers the day when the Catholic Diocese closed St. Margaret Mary school in Irondequoit. At the time, her son was in fifth grade. The family became concerned about the future of Catholic schools in Monroe County.

"If we make that financial commitment and we don't feel that they're going to be there, to send the rest of our children through Catholic schools."

The family made a decision to stick with the Catholic schools, and found one where their children felt comfortable.

"They had that sense of security with their school, as most kids do, so when it closed, that was broken for them, so they wanted to be with their friends."

The closing of St. Margaret Mary School, along with 12 other Catholic schools in Monroe County, was tough news to handle for parents and students. The Catholic Diocese cited financial and enrollment problems as the reasons for the closings.

"Some people remember that and they still look to us as you know, how are we doing, what are we doing to move forward. How are we going to make things stable and comfortable so they can depend on us," said Anne Willkins Leach, Catholic schools superintendent.

Enrollment figures released by the Diocese show in the year 2007-2008, in grades K-8, there were 3,892 students in Monroe County Catholic Schools. currently, there are 2,450.

Although the numbers show a decrease in enrollment over the past five years, the superintendent of schools says it's much more stable than the steady decline they saw than in years prior to the closures.

"Enrollment was sometimes in the double digits, ten percent down, 11 percent down, eight percent down, six percent down, and right now across the board, looking at the Southern Tier, Finger Lakes and Monroe County, we are pretty much stable, we're under one percent down," said Willkins Leach.

A million-dollar media campaign has helped make a Catholic education more attractive, but the Diocese believes it's time to go beyond billboards and TV ads and reach out to the parents.

"What brings in new students is parents seeing other parents talk about the positive experience their child is having and that's what we're trying to work with now."

Willkins Leach says the diocese has no plans to close any schools, and would love to see more schools open.

In 2011, Holy Cross reopened, welcoming back some 300 students.

"We are very confident, and we want our parents to be confident that we're here to stay."

Betsy Lawless is somewhat skeptical, but with three children attending Catholic schools, she is hopeful enrollment will improve.

"Will Catholic schools go away completely in Rochester and Monroe County, probably not. But I would imagine if they can't keep the numbers up in some of those schools, they'll do as they've done in the past."

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