If you ask third graders at St. Walter elementary school in Morgan Park on Chicago’s South Side what they want for Christmas this year, they don’t have to think twice.
Their wish list includes a hoverboard, a new phone, and the simple wish for “people to have a great Christmas.”
But teachers and school administrators are hoping for something much bigger.
“We need $364,000 by Jan. 7,” said St. Walter Principal Sharon O’Toole.
The Archdiocese of Chicago told parents in early November that St. Walter will close by June unless the school community comes up with $364,000 to cover a deficit this year and a projected deficit for 2019.
For Carroll Sweeney-Vargas, a St. Walter parent and alumni, the thought of her 66-year-old school closing is devastating.
“I was baptized here, made my confirmation here, my first communion, was married here,” she said. “I mean this is home.”
St. Walter sits in a mostly working-class community and serves a racially diverse student body. It could fit more than 200 students, but in the last six years, enrollment has declined by half. It now has just 118 students. About 40 percent are considered low income.
St. Walter’s situation reflects a trend at many schools across the Archdiocese of Chicago. In the last two decades, the church has lost 42 percent of its student population, and the number of Catholic schools has dropped by nearly 31 percent. The church also has lost religious educators whose inexpensive labor has helped keep Catholic schools afloat.
To try to get ahead of the problem, the archdiocese has come up with “Renew my Church.” It’s a strategy that brings church officials and parishioners together to figure out how to share resources and save by merging parishes and schools and closing underutilized buildings. Four schools are already slated to close by June through this process.
This collaborative approach wasn’t an option for St. Walter. The decision to give St. Walter School the Jan. 7 deadline was made by the archdiocese.
Leaders at St. Walter School were informed in September and have been working to raise funds. Parents, though, were shocked by the news and the deadline. Many are involved in school fundraising and didn’t realize things had gotten that dire.
Pinning hope on state’s new private school scholarships
The St. Walter tuition is about $6,000 and 41 of the school’s families already get some type of financial assistance from the school and foundations. O’Toole had hoped to save money and boost enrollment with help from the state’s new private scholarship program, but only 13 students got scholarships this year. She had hoped for at least 20.
[We thought] “that people [would] will make donations earmarked for St. Walter’s school and that would have given us a boost in our enrollment,” O’Toole said.
Under the state’s new tax credit scholarship program, individuals or corporations donate to scholarship groups and in exchange they get a 75 percent tax credit. Donors can direct their contributions to specific schools or groups of schools. Donations in this first year covered 5,600 student scholarships statewide, but tens of thousands of students applied. Gov.-elect JB Pritzker has vowed to end the program.
Archdiocese Catholic schools Superintendent Jim Rigg says the church is trying to be realistic about what school communities are facing.
“We have to realize that neighborhoods change, communities change, and our schools were built to serve populations that have shifted dramatically through the generations. And as part of that equation, we have to make difficult choices,” Rigg said.
Slime and bracelet fundraisers
After the shock of the Jan. 7 deadline wore off, parents and students started dreaming up all kinds of fundraisers. “Two students came to me and wanted to start selling slime to raise money for the school, and I said, ‘You write up a whole business proposition for me, and we will talk,’” O’Toole said.
Parents are coordinating popcorn sales and raffle events. Other students are making bracelets from rubber bands during recess to sell.
Principal O’Toole is thrilled with the response from students and parents. But she knows her school needs more than that.
“The things that we do, that people are putting their heart and soul into, are only going to bring us $3,000 or $5,000,” she said. “We truly have to rely on the outside community to help us with those $10,000 and $20,000 checks.”
So far, the school has raised a lot — $184,000. But with only two weeks to raise $180,000, parents want the archdiocese to extend their deadline. Superintendent Rigg says he is willing to look into it, but it depends on how much money is raised by Jan. 7.