SAN DIEGO — The next school year will mean a fresh start for two local school communities.
Separated by a two-mile stretch of El Cajon Boulevard, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School in City Heights and Blessed Sacrament School in the College Area have been facing declining enrollment numbers that have threatened the viability of both institutions.
The diocese’s solution was to begin a two-year process that will see the closing of both parish schools and the opening of a new school under diocesan governance at the site of the Blessed Sacrament campus. The new K-8 school, which is yet to be named, will welcome students from both parish communities when it opens for the 2018-2019 academic year.
Ann Egan, the current principal of Blessed Sacrament, will serve as principal of the new school. Alfonso Magaña, principal of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, will return to the classroom while also having a role in school administration.
John Galvan, director of the diocesan Office for Schools, acknowledged that any school closing is accompanied by feelings of sadness and sometimes even anger among those most directly affected. But in this case, he said, the proposal also has been greeted with support, understanding and optimism for the future.
“I’ve heard on more than one occasion the comment, ‘I’m glad to see the diocese is doing something,’” Galvan said. “They see us doing something other than simply closing a school. They see us working intentionally with them. They see us investing time, and money, and human resources in this initiative.”
Galvan said that, while it’s true that both schools are “losing a piece of their history,” those spearheading this process are asking both school communities to identify those aspects of their history and tradition that should be preserved and continued at the new school.
“There’s a very intentional bridge-building phase that’s happening now,” said Galvan, who explained that the two schools are fostering unity in preparation for their merging into one educational institution.
This year will see the creation of volleyball and academic decathlon teams composed of students from both schools, he said. The two faculties and Parent Teacher Groups also have begun holding joint meetings.
The current Blessed Sacrament campus underwent an extensive renovation and received significant technological upgrades this past summer, provided by the Shea Homes Foundation at no cost to the diocese or the schools.
The new school will be home to a “wellness center” — the first of its kind at a local Catholic school — developed by the Office for Schools in partnership with the University of San Diego. Similar wellness centers, which will make available a continuum of health services for students and families, are expected to open at other schools in the near future.
The new school will also adopt initiatives and educational models new to area Catholic schools, such as “blended learning.” For instance, Galvan said classrooms will be set up in such a way as to allow students to rotate among various workstations. As students collaborate in small groups or complete tasks on the computer, teachers will be able to better monitor students’ progress, working individually with those who are struggling and determining which are not being sufficiently challenged.
“We are preparing compassionate young leaders to assume responsibility in the 21st-century world they will be inheriting,” Egan said. Curriculum and instruction will enable teachers “to meet each student where they are, then take them as far as they may grow within each school year. This is whole-child learning without limits.”
Catholic schools are facing challenges nationwide and schools in the Diocese of San Diego are not immune, Galvan said, noting that the cost of Catholic elementary education in San Diego has increased more than 50 percent over the past decade, while enrollment has dropped by 20 percent during the same time.
“That math doesn’t add up,” said Galvan.
This has prompted a necessary change in perspective on education.
“We have to be more concerned with how many Catholic school children we’re educating than how many Catholic schools we have,” Galvan said, echoing the message that he received from Bishop Robert W. McElroy. “In other words, our first priority cannot be institutional preservation. It’s about how do we create a sustainable system of relevant, innovative Catholic education.”
In the case of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Blessed Sacrament schools, Galvan said, each school had fewer than 100 enrolled students and was operating with a large budget deficit.
With the approval of Bishop McElroy, the Office for Schools partnered with the CSJ Educational Network, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange that provides catechetical and leadership formation for Catholic educators, and established a steering committee that would work over the course of two years to prepare for the merging of the schools.
Magaña told The Southern Cross that, throughout its history, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School has never turned away a family for financial reasons. That has meant that it hasn’t been able to rely on tuition to cover its own financial needs. Even with supportive school parents, many of whom are working two or more jobs to afford to send their children to Catholic school, Magaña said, the school was struggling.
“Our community is sad to leave a building that has been a beacon of hope for City Heights — and beyond its borders — for 90 years,” he said. “Our students, however, will be the beneficiaries of a new merged school that will continue this mission.”
Bea Halk, a former parishioner of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart who has remained involved with the community, echoed Magaña’s take on the situation. She spoke of enrollment numbers that had been declining steadily over the past 15 years.
Even after grades were combined and expenses “cut to the bone,” it was clear that the school couldn’t survive in its current form, said Halk, a steering committee member who describes the diocesan plan as “the best solution for both schools.”
“The sense of loss is present in many of us,” she said. “However, we do feel excitement and optimism that we will continue to pass on our faith and a solid Catholic education to future generations at a new location. … This is not the end of OLSH; it is a new beginning.”
Acknowledging the “rich legacy” of both schools, Egan said, “Faith teaches us to persevere. I truly believe the model we are launching will serve the diverse needs of local families looking for an affordable, values-based Catholic education.”
Joe Kloberdanz, a steering committee member from Blessed Sacrament, graduated from the parish school in 1964 and had friends who attended Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School. He admitted that “it is sad to see these two historic institutions disappear,” but stressed that the most important thing is that Catholic elementary education will continue to be available to children in the neighborhood.
“I can’t wait to see the new school ‘re-open’ next fall,” he said.