Author Topic: School’s Out, Forever  (Read 1735 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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School’s Out, Forever
« on: June 26, 2011, 08:54:01 am »

ne 24, 2011
School’s Out, Forever
JUST don’t cry. That has been Sister Nora McArt’s mantra. She has been unflappable in her 42 years at St. Martin of Tours Elementary School in the Bronx, braving the gang fights, racial unrest and crack wars that were waged outside the school and convent in the Crotona neighborhood. No matter the mayhem, she had to be calm for the children.

Until now.

The sight of old textbooks lining the hallways elicits a sniffle. A teacher’s hug leaves Sister Nora dabbing at her eyes. And forget about the kindergarten graduation, which left her speechless when she beheld the nine youngsters sitting before the altar in blue caps and gowns.

“We are honored to have with us the future college graduates of ...” She paused, bit her lip and looked at the children. Her voice cracked. “Of ... 20 ... 27.”

Sister Nora praised them for learning about God, reading and respect.

“We look forward to hearing about the progress they make as they continue their educational journey ... elsewhere.”

She made it, barely. The “elsewhere” was the killer, as it has been since January, when Sister Nora was told the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York had decided St. Martin’s would close after 86 years. Pleas and plans to save the school were received and rejected. Wednesday was the school’s final day.

Most of the 104 students at St. Martin’s will be scattered to other Catholic schools. The nine lay teachers on the faculty may not be as lucky — more than 250 teachers are already unemployed throughout the cash-strapped archdiocese, and schools are retrenching.

St. Martin’s is among 26 archdiocesan elementary schools closing this month because of the shrinking enrollments and ballooning deficits the Catholic school system has been experiencing for decades. The archdiocese says its closings are the first step in reorganizing and strengthening its remaining schools — even though teachers at St. Martin’s and other schools wonder if the shutdowns only foretell the demise of urban parochial education.

In 1961, the archdiocese had 212,781 students in 414 elementary and high schools. This year, including the schools that are closing, there were 79,782 children at 274 schools.

Before the advent of charter schools, these schools helped generations of immigrant children become Americans and professionals. They continued to propel Latino and African-American children into the middle class after the tumult of the 1960s, when drastic changes washed over both the church and urban America. They were also the source of religious vocations.

Sister Nora, 66, has not had much time for reflection. Much of her time this month was spent running between her office and the classrooms, closing accounts and guiding teachers through the uncomfortable rituals of throwing out books, clearing out classrooms and taking down crucifixes and statues of saints.

“The teachers and I try to hide our feelings from the kids,” said Sister Nora, who became principal in 2006. “But when we’re in the faculty room, it’s another story. We go from anger to resentment to mourning, and back to anger. I just don’t know where we’re going. What’s going to happen to the church? Nobody’s thought that far ahead — not just the parish, but the church in general in New York.”

This school has long been a sanctuary amid uncertainty — as it was for me starting in 1964, when my parents fled Hunts Point for the safety of Crotona. The fires followed a few years later, and we moved away in 1969. But I still took two buses from Morris Heights — past blocks reduced to rubble — until I graduated.

Forget the cheap jokes about ruler-swinging nuns gliding through the aisles in full-length habits. For those of us who saw our neighborhood almost vanish in smoke from arson or crack pipes, Sister Nora stands as a reminder of the sacrifices made happily and gifts given freely by women religious. Through word and deed they taught us the works of mercy: to feed the poor, clothe the naked and educate the ignorant.

To comfort the afflicted.

And now — 40 years after I walked down the aisle clutching my diploma — I returned to fulfill a final work of mercy: to bury the dead.

St. Martin’s, named after a fourth-century soldier who cut his cloak in half to clothe a beggar, opened in 1925 to serve the children of Italian and Irish working-class parents. During its heyday, almost a thousand pupils packed its 24 classrooms, even into the 1960s, when racial slurs and Molotov cocktails were hurled on the streets over the influx of Latinos and African-Americans in the neighborhood. It was a haven when abandonment and arson almost destroyed the area in the 1970s, and when crack and guns claimed lives in the ’90s.

Childhood haunts often seem smaller in later years. But the school and its neighborhood feel more spacious — and that’s the problem. Many residents fled during the blight of the ’70s, while others were pushed out by the city to make room for a hospital that was never built. Fewer children were left to draw from, and many of the parents who remained had precarious jobs that disappeared in sour economic times, making it impossible to cover the $3,300 annual tuition.

Five years ago, the archdiocese placed St. Martin’s on a list of endangered schools. About 70 students were withdrawn by parents who worried that they would have nowhere to go the following academic year. Although the school won a reprieve, its finances were taken over by archdiocese officials. Sister Nora and her faculty feel as if they never had a chance after that.

But the demographic and economic pressures closing in on parochial schools go well beyond St. Martin’s, said Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. The era when thriving congregations could support large schools staffed by nuns is long gone, taking with it the very concept of a parochial school.

With higher costs and fewer students, the archdiocese can no longer subsidize schools running on a deficit. St. Martin’s, Dr. McNiff said, is expected to post a $397,000 deficit this year.

A plan to address the schools crisis — which first required closing the weakest ones — will now examine creating regional schools.

“The parish-based school is not a model that works in many of our parishes,” Dr. McNiff said. “We are having to change the governance structure and business model so that we do not have to continue the next few decades enduring the death of a thousand cuts.”

CHRISTINE ALTSCHULER sat in what was her first-grade classroom in the late 1950s. Now, as a first-grade teacher, she had taken lunch breaks with her colleagues in the same room.

“You know what I’ll miss?” Mrs. Altschuler, 58, asked. “The kids. As a first-grade teacher, I’ve seen them grow through eight grades. I’ve taught entire families.”

She struggled to explain her feelings.

“I can’t tell you what this school means to me,” she said. “I really can’t. It’s my past. My present. But it won’t be my future.”

Though two other current teachers also attended the school, neither had roots that rivaled Mrs. Altschuler’s. Three generations of her family taught or studied there. Her father, Alpine Gori, graduated in 1933 with the first class to go through all eight grades.

Mrs. Altschuler graduated from the school in 1966 and returned to teach in 1991 as a favor to her mother, Albina Gori, who was the school’s receptionist for 41 years, many of them with Sister Cecilia McCarthy, now 92, the principal from 1967 until 2001.

Mrs. Altschuler’s mother — Mrs. Gori, to hundreds of school kids — had a way about her, persuading her to come to the school over the years to take pictures at a bazaar, or to videotape a Christmas pageant. Twenty years ago, Mrs. Gori called her daughter with an urgent request.

“ ‘Sister Cecilia needs you to volunteer as a teacher,’ ” Mrs. Altschuler recalled. “ ‘I told her you could do it. You have to.’ ”

Mrs. Altschuler smiled.

“And years later, I wound up doing the same thing to my daughter,” she said, laughing. “I called her up one day and said, ‘Sister needs you to teach!’ ”

Samantha Altschuler, now 28, joined her mother in 2009 — replacing a popular teacher who had fallen ill — and most recently taught reading and social studies to the upper grades. They commuted together from their home in Throgs Neck, making the pain of the last few months bearable.

As long as nobody discussed homework.

In recent weeks, the teachers asked students to write essays about their memories of the school. One wrote about the day a friend tossed a boomerang out the window. Another told of feeling as if no one knew he existed, until he made new friends at the school. Alexis Lewis, a seventh grader, insisted that Sister Nora was not as strict as others thought.

“I think she just wanted to push us and prepare us for the real world,” Alexis wrote. “When my sister passed away, out of the kindness of her heart she contacted every archdiocesan school in the Bronx and politely asked for their prayers.”

Crotona felt like the suburbs when Sister Nora arrived in 1969. She had come from her first teaching assignment, at St. John Chrysostom, near the infamous Fort Apache police station in the South Bronx. She moved into a convent that was home to 14 other nuns and a German shepherd named Pepper.

Today, Sister Nora lives alone in the run-down building.

She and her two sisters grew up in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, where her father drove a beer-delivery truck. He died when she was at Cathedral High School in Turtle Bay, where she first encountered members of the Dominican order from Sparkill, N.Y. She liked their easy manner and rapport. She joined the order in 1963, a year after graduating.

“There were 56 of us when I got to Sparkill,” she recalled. “The mother general called us her Joyful Mysteries.”

Not long after she arrived at St. Martin’s, Sister Nora’s order adopted reforms that allowed members to pursue careers beyond teaching or child care. Others left with the upheaval that swept the church after the Second Vatican Council. From her entering class, only six women remain in the order.

“We only have one novice right now at the motherhouse,” Sister Nora said. “The older nuns call me the Kid. There are going to be significant changes in religious communities. Life is not going to be the same because of the lack of vocations.”

With St. Martin’s closing, Sister Nora will teach English at an immigrant services agency run by her order in the west Bronx. Her stipend will be $16,000 — half what she received at the school — and there will be no benefits. “But at least I’ll be working with people in need,” she said.

ALL through the spring, few people associated with St. Martin’s would confront the inevitable. Students wished aloud that they could redo the school year. Teachers forgot to start their annual vacation countdown. For many, there was nothing to look forward to beyond unemployment.

Zahriymar Lassalle, 31, who taught second grade, has seen the institutions that first educated and then employed her slowly vanish. Her grammar school, St. John Vianney, in the east Bronx, is closing this year, while St. Simon Stock, near Fordham, where she taught for a year, has downsized. She earned tenure this year at St. Martin’s.

Her prospects are slim.

“It’s just too much of a risk to be teaching in Catholic schools,” Ms. Lassalle said. “Honestly, I feel they are going to disappear, little by little. The economy is bad, and the people who can’t afford it are not getting the help they need. And the price keeps going up. And in neighborhoods like this, it’s difficult to keep the kids in Catholic school.”

Upstairs, Antonio Soto, 51, led his eighth-grade science class through a lesson on the elements, mixing goofy enthusiasm with unshakable confidence.

“Come on!” he said, sitting among his students. “Let’s recite the first 20 elements.”

The class tore through the list.

“Some high school teachers won’t think you can do that,” Mr. Soto said. “But you do. And when they ask you, ‘Where do you come from?’ Tell them. You’re from St. Martin of Tours.”

Chika Amaefule, 42, a parent, knows public school would ease the burden on her family’s budget — she and her husband work to put their four children through Catholic school. And while she is aware that some charter schools offer more programs, that option is not enough to put her at ease.

“There is opportunity in public school, but there are a lot of distractions,” said Ms. Amaefule, who is from Nigeria. “Some things they allow in public schools are disruptive. There is discipline in Catholic schools.”

THE devotional nooks flanking the sanctuary in St. Martin of Tours Church reflect the changes in the neighborhood: old wooden statues of St. Isaac Jogues and St. Anthony stand alongside newer paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe and La Virgen de la Altagracia.

The pews reflect the changes, too. At the final graduation at St. Martin’s, on June 18, the church was cavernously empty.

Mr. Soto played “Pomp and Circumstance” on a keyboard as the faculty and 14 final graduates filed up the center aisle. Sister Nora kept her composure as she welcomed the crowd and then read the names of the graduates.

Ginikanwa Amaefule, the oldest of Ms. Amaefule’s children, took top honors.

Less than an hour later, they emerged, hugging and taking pictures.

Doris Tacinelli, 53, a teacher at St. Martin’s for 29 years — 22 in kindergarten — stood off to the side, her big sunglasses hiding red-rimmed eyes. Angel Pagan, his blue graduation robe shimmering in the sun, hugged her. She had been his teacher when he first came to the school.

“I still can’t believe it,” Ms. Tacinelli said as the boy walked away. “I’ve done this so many years. I keep saying it’s just another summer, but it’s not.”

Four days later, the sky was as bruised and gray as the mood inside the school, where misty-eyed teachers offered final words of encouragement and praise, while movers hauled filing cabinets downstairs.

As a school, the children trudged uphill on East 182nd Street to the church, where they knelt and offered thanks for St. Martin’s, their teachers and their friends. They spoke of wisdom, grace and remembrance. Then the church’s pastor, the Rev. Cosme Fernandes, blessed them.

Reluctantly, Diomara Perez, 26, and her third-grade class returned to the school, where they huddled together one last time. Jeremy Lacayo, who had once told Ms. Perez he wanted to be a priest, sat slumped over his desk. Enaya Martinez, an impish girl who dreams of writing, cried inconsolably.

“I want you to be the best, best of the best in your new schools,” Ms. Perez said brightly.

They rose and offered a final prayer, then turned and slowly filed out. Lorena Chacon was the last to leave. She stood in the front of the empty, unadorned room, her eyes wide in wonder. Her face was a portrait of pain and puzzlement.

She walked away sobbing.

Offline Hypestyle

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Re: School’s Out, Forever
« Reply #1 on: June 28, 2011, 08:08:34 pm »
wow...I think my old parochial elementary school building has been a (secular) Head Start for at least 10 years now.. i'll have to investigate what happened to all the old photographs & records..
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