Feelings mixed on Northside Catholic school merger

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Some parents were taken by surprise when the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese announced on Sunday that Cardinal Wright Regional and St. Cyril of Alexandria elementary schools would merge for the 2011-12 school year.

Others saw the signs, and weren’t surprised.

Secretary for Catholic Education Father Kris Stubna cited declining enrollment as the primary motive behind the merger. Tuition at both schools would have increased dramatically at current enrollment rates without a merger, Stubna said.

A Cardinal Wright parent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said certain teachers at the school knew about the merger in September.

“[The teachers] weren’t saying to me this might happen,” the parent said. “They were saying it’s going to happen.”

Coretta Buggs, another Cardinal Wright parent, said that because the deadline to apply for public school magnet programs and charter schools has already passed, she felt “stuck” sending her child to the merged school.

“I feel [the merger] was announced too late,” Buggs said. “They really didn’t give you a choice if you wanted to go to another school.”

Stubna said the merger was announced the same week the Diocese made the final decision.

The decision was made this year as opposed to previous years, he said, because many parishes had been making large financial contributions to keep the schools open, and it was becoming a burden to the parishes. The pattern of declining enrollment and the down economy also led the Diocese to make a decision this year, he said.

“If you wait too long you’ve lost a lot of kids [because of tuition],” Stubna said.

A St. Cyril parent who wished to remain anonymous said she was surprised by the announcement. She doesn’t mind the merger itself, she said, as long as the new school has small class sizes and no bullying.

Even had the Diocese announced the merger earlier, the St. Cyril parent said she wouldn’t have moved her children anyway.

The new school, which does not yet have a name, will be housed in the current St. Cyril Elementary building because the Cardinal Wright building needs several hundred thousand dollars worth of repairs, Stubna said.

“We’re hoping to get most of the students to go to the new school,” Stubna said. “We’re trying to be at a location that is as accessible to as many of our families as possible.”

According to a press release, a survey of parents of both schools indicated most would send their children to a merged school. Stubna said he has received positive feedback from parents about the merger despite bittersweet feelings about it.

“Every time we close a school, there’s a tremendous amount of sadness,” he said. “Cardinal Wright has been there for a long time.”

Enrollment numbers at both K-8 schools tells the same story as many Catholic schools across the country. In 2001-02, St. Cyril had 202 students, compared to 102 this school year. Over the same period, Cardinal Wright dropped from 235 to 154.

Yearly tuition for St. Cyril would have raised from $3,400 per child this year to $5,055 next year, and tuition for Cardinal Wright would have gone from $3,500 to $6,280 per child

Tuition for the new school is estimated at about $3,500 per year, Stubna said.

Stabilizing tuition and keeping a Catholic education affordable are important to retaining families, another reason cited for the necessity of the merger.

Another “bonus” of merging the schools is that programs will not have to be cut.

“Parents were very nervous about how long those schools could continue. With 100 kids at St. Cyril it’s hard to run a basketball team,” Stubna said.

Stubna expressed hope that the large number of community organizations that support Cardnial Wright will continue to support the new school. Trophies and other things from Cardinal Wright will be moved into the St. Cyril building.

The new name will be chosen by a steering committee, and is meant to allow parents and students from both schools to feel included in the new school’s identity, Stubna said.

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