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Volume 77, Number 13 | Aug. 29 - Sep.04, 2007

A special Villager supplement.

Back to School

How a new classroom might look at the elite Academy of St. Joseph’s once there are more students.

Academy opens, with 2 pupils, in old parish school

By Melissa Korn

St. Joseph’s School on Washington Pl. shut its doors at the end of the 2005-2006 academic year because of low enrollment. At the end of its 150-year run, the parish school had 124 students, down from 300 a few decades ago.

The new school opening in its place at 111 Washington Pl. this September has just two students: one pre-kindergartener and one kindergartener.

Administrators at The Academy of St. Joseph do expect it to grow over time and say there’s precedent in schools of this type getting slow starts. But for now, the two students will get a lot of personal attention as they are team-taught by two full-time teachers and have special instructors for art, French and music.

The academy came about after Dr. Catherine Hickey, the Catholic Archdiocese’s education secretary, received requests “out of the blue” to start a school with a focus on the humanities. According to Hickey, those same people who had asked her to start such a school had unfortunately enrolled their children in other programs by the time this one was ready to start registration this spring. She and school Principal Angela Coombs are optimistic that once families see that the school up and running and that it’s ready to accept applications earlier in the cycle, enrollment will rise quickly.

Curriculum for those students who will be seated in the newly renovated classrooms this fall will be focused around the principles of character, competence and compassion, according to Coombs, who is a 27-year veteran in the education system.

“We want to nurture character and substance in our graduates. They should be people of quality and competence, not just intelligence,” said Coombs, who most recently led a Catholic school in Orlando, Fla. “I want our students to be compassionate, so that they are grateful that they are being given a gift to come to this school and know they need to give back to school, community and world.” 

Providing tools for that emphasis, combined with the stress on the humanities as seen through the lens of the Christian tradition, is inherently going to cost a little more than a regular parish school, Hickey said.

There was an outcry back in the spring of 2006, when it was announced that the parish school would close and an academy would open in its place, followed by another outcry early this spring, when the new tuition — $25,000 — was announced. Parents of the school, then kindergarten through eighth grade, were enraged at the idea that the Church would close a low-cost parochial school that served the community in order to cater to affluent families and compete with private prep schools like Brearley and Dalton.

Although the new price tag gave many parents sticker shock, some say it’s only a sign of the times. According to Father John McGuire, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church — which ran the old school — few families who would have wanted to be affiliated with the local parish schools can actually afford to live nearby anymore.

“The normal parochial school student hardly exists in the Village,” McGuire said. “It’s a very upper-class neighborhood.”

Archdiocesan officials went even further to back the decision to open the new academy, explaining that the parish school wasn’t closed solely so that the academy could be started.

“If the enrollment had been higher, the parish school would still have been there,” Hickey insisted. “It is not intended to be a follow-through on the closing of St. Joseph’s parish school.” Rather, she said, when the parish school was listed for closure along with other schools across the city, she was given an opportunity to put her academy plan into action.

Hickey has also defended the Church against charges of hypocrisy and claims that it is beginning to care more about rich Catholics than about those of more modest means. She counters, saying the decision to open a higher-priced school and pay attention to wealthier congregants doesn’t mean she is turning her back on others.

“Even though we have our commitment to the poor, there is no reason we cannot reach out to other communities,” Hickey said. “There is no reason we should not reach out to those who are not poor. They are God’s children, too.”

And, she pointed out, she wasn’t leaving the parish students without alternatives. There were enough seats available in the other local parish schools, like Our Lady of Pompeii at Bleecker and Carmine Sts., St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School on Mott St. and Our Lady of Sorrows on Stanton St., to accommodate the students from St. Joseph’s.

The academy also has plenty of room for new students, whenever they arrive. Its six-floor building has been a construction site for months, and small renovations will continue over breaks and weekends to put finishing touches on some of the higher floors that will be used for upper grades in coming years. The setup allows for 18 students per class, with enough rooms for kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as an art studio, library, science laboratory, assembly hall and an outdoor play area.

As long as the student body consists of one pre-kindergartener and one kindergartener, though, most of those rooms will remain dark.

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